On February 24, 2022, the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops occupied Snake Island, a small but strategically important position in the Black Sea about 140 km south of Odessa. The 13 Ukrainian soldiers stationed there bravely repelled the Russian attacks twice, but they were unable to continue the fight as they ran out of ammunition. Photos and audio recordings of Ukrainian defenders challenging Russian attackers have gone viral. Ukraine celebrated history with patriotic fervor by issuing a commemorative postage stamp. All of the Defenders are believed to have died and were honored posthumously by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but it was later reported that they survived and were in captivity. When Ukraine regained control of Snake Island on June 30, it marked a huge boost in much-needed morale for Ukrainian soldiers.
Snake Island is a key strategic point of Ukraine in the Black Sea. The reason for this is the proximity of Romania (member of NATO) and the fact that it is located on the edge of Ukrainian territorial waters in the Black Sea. The island has an X shape, an area of 0.205 km2. The highest point of the island is 41 meters above sea level. The island does not have a prominent mountain, but rather a hilly area with low slopes. Despite its small size, the American think tank Atlantic Council has concluded that Snake Island is “key to Ukraine’s maritime territorial claims”. The rocky islet is located 35 km southwest of the Ukrainian mainland, east of the Danube Delta. It has strategic value in controlling the northwest Black Sea, Ukrainian coastal cities and sea routes which form an important part of the global grain supply chain.
Conflicts and wars on and around this strangely named island are not new, but a continuity that has been going on for centuries. The stories date back thousands of years to the mythological Trojan War of the ancient Greeks. Snake Island seems like a weird name for such an important place, but the island still has that name. The ancient Greeks originally called Snake Island Leuke – meaning “white”, and the Romans similarly called it Alba, probably because of the white marble formations that can be found on the island. According to the ancient Greek writer Dionysius Periegetes, the reason is that the snakes found on the island were white in color. However, this seems to be a myth, as there are no signs of snakes on the island. The local population uses the Ukrainian word zimiinyi to refer to the island, which means “winter”. Snake Island has long been associated with Achilles, the great warrior in Greek mythology who was considered invincible except for a single vulnerable point, his heel. The island was sacred to Achilles and had a hero’s temple with a statue inside. People came to the island and sacrificed or released animals in honor of Achilles.
During the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks renamed the island Fidonisi after the naval battle near Fadeins, which opposed the Ottoman and Russian fleets in 1788, during the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-1792. After the next Russo-Turkish war of 1828-1829, the island became part of the Russian Empire until 1856. In 1877, after another Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, the Ottoman Empire gave Snake Island and the northern Dobruja region in Romania. , in compensation for the Russian annexation of the Romanian region of Southern Bessarabia. During World War I, allied with the Romanians, the Russians operated a wireless station on the island, which was destroyed on June 25, 1917, when it was bombarded by the Ottoman cruiser Midilli. The lighthouse, which was built in 1860, was also damaged. The 1920 Treaty of Versailles reaffirmed the island as part of Romania. The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1922. During World War II, the island served as a stronghold for the Axis powers and a radio station was set up there. Near the island, minefields were laid which damaged or sank Soviet ships and submarines. The island was a target of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet but was never conquered until August 30, 1944, when Romanian marines were evacuated from the island.
The Paris Peace Treaties of 1947 stipulated that Romania cede northern Bucovina, the Herts region, Budjak and Bessarabia to the Soviet Union, but the mouths of the Danube and Snake Island are not mentioned. Until 1948, Snake Island was part of Romania. On February 4, 1948, Romania and the Soviet Union signed a protocol that left Snake Island and several islets on the Danube south of the 1917 Romanian-Russian border under Soviet administration. Romania disputed the validity of this protocol, because neither country had ever ratified it. However, he did not officially claim these territories. In the same year, 1948, during the Cold War, a Soviet radar station (for naval and anti-aircraft purposes) was built on the island.
The possession of the Soviet Union on Snake Island was confirmed by the agreement between the government of the People’s Republic of Romania and the government of the USSR on the regime of the Romanian-Soviet state border, cooperation and l mutual assistance in border matters, signed in Bucharest on February 27, 1961. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Ukraine inherited control of the island. Many Romanian parties have always maintained that the island should be included in its territory. According to the Romanians, in the peace treaties of 1918 and 1920, the island was considered part of Romania, and it was not mentioned in the 1947 treaty on the modification of the borders between Romania and the Union Soviet. In 1997, Romania and Ukraine signed a treaty in which the two states “reaffirm that the existing border between them is inviolable and will therefore refrain, now and in the future, from any attempt to violate the border, as well as any demand, or act, confiscation and usurpation of all or part of the territory of the contracting party”. However, the two countries have agreed that if a resolution on the maritime borders is not reached within two years, then each party can apply to the International Court of Justice to request a final decision.
Until 2007, Snake Island was uninhabited. The settlement of Bile was founded in February 2007 with the aim of consolidating the status of the island as a populated place. This happened during the period from 2004 to 2009, when the island was part of a border dispute between Romania and Ukraine. At that time, Romania contested the technical definition of the island and the borders that surrounded it. In 2009, the International Court of Justice drew a new maritime boundary between Romania and Ukraine to resolve the dispute over Snake Island and parts of the Black Sea believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves – the main reason for the dispute. Romania received almost 80% of the disputed maritime territory, but not the island. At the time, Ukraine claimed Snake Island was populated and economically active, home to around 100 people, including military personnel, lighthouse keepers, scientists and their families. The island belongs to Odessa Oblast.
In the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War, kyiv’s first major victory at sea was the sinking of the cruiser Moskva on April 14. Besides the prestige of sinking a Russian Black Sea Fleet ship, it showed that the Russian Navy could not safely operate near the Ukrainian coast due to the continued threat posed by the developed Neptune anti-ship missiles. by Ukraine and Harpoon missiles supplied by the West. Due to the destruction of Moscow, the strategic importance of Snake Island increased as a Russian base. The loss of Russian dominance over the northwest Black Sea was already announced by British intelligence services on June 21. Russia has defended the island since February, but Ukraine has increasingly inflicted severe damage on the Russians, sinking supply ships and damaging Russian installations on the island. .
On June 30, 2022, Ukraine announced that it had repelled Russian forces off Snake Island. New advanced weapons sent by the West to the Ukrainians have rendered the Russian garrison on Snake Island excessively vulnerable and utterly useless to defend. It can be argued that Russia’s withdrawal is primarily the result of NATO deliveries to Ukraine. Precisely because of the HIMARS missile system and other advanced missile systems, the Russian garrison on the island suffered heavy losses and the assessment was that it was better to withdraw, which, although with hesitation, was eventually admitted by Russian officials themselves.
As the Ukrainian-Russian land war dragged on, Ukraine’s undoubted success at sea took on strategic significance. First of all, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Snake Island symbolically and effectively marks the liberation of part of Ukrainian territory, however small. In military and transport terms, by capturing the island at an early stage of the invasion, Russia secured a key position which allowed better control over the northwestern part of the Black Sea. Russian ships could freely navigate the vicinity of the island without fear of more severe enemy fire, and moreover, they had the support of the island’s anti-aircraft defense system. Now Russian ships have become much more vulnerable. The Russians thus lost a useful military position on the island, the protection of their navigation and the surrounding airspace. The liberation of the island also means that Odessa Oblast is no longer under threat from direct naval invasion and Russian troops no longer have the ability to deploy coastal missile systems on the island. which can launch rockets into Ukrainian territory.
Although the Ukrainian army has taken control of the island, it does not expect Ukraine to permanently station combat troops there, as they would be seriously injured in missile and drone strikes by Russian forces. The most important thing for the Ukrainians, besides the patriotic symbol of the island, is the fact that the Russian forces can no longer take advantage of their strategic position. For Russia to leave Snake Island is embarrassing and can be described as a defeat, but a defeat that is not fatal as the outcome of the war will be decided elsewhere on the mainland.
*Matija Šerić is a Croatian geopolitical analyst and journalist and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.