Why is Snake Island so important to Ukraine and Russia?

Why is Snake Island so important to Ukraine and Russia?

(CNN) — It’s barely 40 acres of rock and grass with no fresh water (and no snakes either), but the snake island in the Black Sea has acquired an emblematic significance in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

The island, known as Zmiinyi Ostriv in Ukrainian, is located about 30 miles off the coast of Ukraine and close to sea lanes leading to the Bosphorus and the Mediterranean.

Moscow has never claimed Snake Island, and it’s a far cry from anywhere on the Russian mainland. It is more than 290 kilometers from Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. In no geographical or historical sense could Russia claim it as its own.

But to hell with the story because it has strategic value and the Russians clearly thought it would be easy plunder. Even before the conflict, Ukraine knew it was vulnerable. Last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the island, where there are no voters but a few sheep, to stress its relevance. “This island, like the rest of our territory, is Ukrainian land, and we will defend it with all our might,” he said.

The Russians attacked Snake Island on the first day of the war, in late February, when a now-famous exchange took place between its Ukrainian defenders and the Russian Navy. Ordered to surrender, the island’s small detachment of sailors radioed, “Russian warship, fuck you,” an exchange that became the central idea of ​​the Ukrainian resistance.

But the relevance of Serpents’ Island is much more than just symbolic. If the Russians are allowed to settle there, Ukraine will no longer be able to guarantee free sea routes between the port of Odessa and the rest of the world. It is through Odessa that much of Ukraine’s agricultural wealth is channeled to world markets.

Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said Friday that whoever owns Snake Island controls “the surface and to some extent the air situation in southern Ukraine.”

“Whoever controls the island can block the movement of civilian ships in all directions towards southern Ukraine at any time,” Budanov added.

For that alone, Ukraine has promised that even if it cannot take back the territory immediately, it will not leave it to the Russians.

The Ukrainians have carried out a series of attacks by drones and other means over the past 10 days against Russian units trying to consolidate their presence on the island.

A satellite view shows smoke rising over Serpent Island on May 8, 2022.

Satellite images from May 12 show a submerged landing craft near the island’s only pier and Ukraine says it also attacked two nearby patrol boats.

Over the weekend, further images showed two plumes of smoke rising from the island. One of them is believed to be from an Mi-8 helicopter carrying Russian marines. It was attacked with a missile, according to drone video released by the Ukrainian military, which also released footage of attacks on anti-aircraft installations on the island.

Ukrainian Snake Island

A fire on the island in a drone video on May 8.

The Odessa regional military administration said on Thursday that a Russian support ship, the “Vsevolod Bobrov”, was on fire and being towed to Sevastopol from the Snake Island area. The claim remains unverified by CNN and Russia has denied there were any casualties around the island.

So why are the Russians trying so hard to maintain control of Snake Island? Because it has the potential to be an unsinkable, albeit static, aircraft carrier with anti-ship and electronic warfare capabilities. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the Russians were “trying to improve their position on the island in order to block Ukrainian communications and maritime capabilities in the northwest Black Sea, especially towards Odessa.”

Budanov also noted that Snake Island could also be useful to the Russians if they wanted to strengthen their presence in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria, which is ruled by a pro-Russian administration and is home to some 1,500 Russian troops.

In fact, this is not the first time that the island has been disputed, but only in court. Romania and Ukraine have a long-standing territorial dispute over the island and surrounding seabed, which may contain potential hydrocarbons. The International Court of Justice finally determined the status of the island and the limits of the exclusive economic zones of Ukraine and Romania in 2009.

This time, it seems highly unlikely that the fate of Snake Island will be decided by a court.

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