Ukraine: Battle for Snake Island

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It's just a tiny, barren island in the extreme west of the Black Sea, but Russians and Ukrainians are fighting fiercely over it. Why is the so-called Snake Island of such immense strategic importance?

< p>Actually, Bile is a completely secluded nest. It is the only settlement on Snake Island, a small island in the Black Sea that is only around 600 by 600 meters in size. It is not known where the island got its name from. At least there are no snakes here. And people have officially only been living on the island since 2007. Maybe there were 30, maybe 50, you don't know exactly. It's been seven years since the last survey. Before, a very long time ago, there is said to have been only one demigod here. According to Greek legend, Achilles is supposed to be buried on this small island.

However, the modern residents of Bile have never seen his sanctuary. A lighthouse was built in its place almost 200 years ago. Otherwise, the most important building on the island was probably the mobile phone mast. Without it, the people who live here would hardly have noticed in normal times that there is another world somewhere out there. 

Sudden end of seclusion

But times are anything but normal. On February 24, 2022, everything suddenly changes for the residents of Bile. Russian troops begin their invasion of Ukraine, attacking the country from the north and east. And they also take Bile and Snake Island, 200 kilometers from Crimea, even more than 500 kilometers from Donbass. The settlement was almost completely destroyed, and the 13 Ukrainian border guards stationed here temporarily became Russian prisoners of war. The radio message with which one of the soldiers stationed here received the attackers made headlines around the world. “Russian Warship, f… you!” has since become synonymous with the Ukrainian will to resist; in April Ukraine even issued its own postage stamp in honor of this scene.

The “Moskva” too , the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet that was later sunk, participated in the capture of Snake Island

Nevertheless, the island has been controlled by Russia ever since. But fierce fighting broke out again. Last weekend, the Ukrainian military reported that it had sunk a Russian Black Sea Fleet landing craft near Snake Island. On Thursday, Ukrainian troops are said to have hit and severely damaged a Russian supply ship. The “Vsevolod Bobrow” was said to have been on the way to Snake Island – and is said to have had anti-aircraft guns on board, among other things.

Strategically important island

As inconspicuous as the island may appear at first glance, it was a strategically important place for both warring parties right from the start. For one thing, there are only a few islands in the Black Sea. On the other hand, Snake Island, located around 200 kilometers south of Odessa, offers the opportunity to control all sea traffic in the vicinity of Ukraine's largest port city. With a permanent occupation of the island, Russia would be able to block virtually all exports of goods through the Odessa seaport. Millions of tons of grain, which already has to be laboriously exported by land, could then no longer be shipped by sea in the long term.

Snake Island – strategically important rock in the Black Sea

The Black Sea riparians have long been aware of the island's strategic importance. It had already been expanded into a military base in Soviet times. The island of snakes has a helicopter platform and two jetties where even large warships with a draft of up to eight meters can land; there are also said to be ammunition and fuel depots, radar systems and rocket positions – some of these also date back to the days of the old USSR. However, this information cannot be verified independently, as the island was considered a restricted military area for decades and was not accessible to the public for a long time even before the current Ukraine war broke out.

Always controversial

The barren rock, which is located in front of the Danube Delta, belonged to Romania until 1948. Only then did he fall to the USSR as part of a controversial donation. Since then, first Romania and the Soviet Union, and later Romania and Ukraine, have been fighting over the island. As so often in such disputes, it was also about mineral resources that are suspected to be around the island. In 2007 Ukraine founded the settlement of Bile on the officially uninhabited island to underpin its territorial claims. The fact that the island became one of the first Russian targets for attack on February 24, 2022, along with Donbass and the advance on Kyiv, further underlines its strategic importance.

Russian plans and Ukrainian resistance

According to British intelligence information, Moscow is now trying to reinforce its troops on the island with cruise missiles and strategic air defenses. In the longer term, the construction of a runway for combat aircraft may also be planned here. In the past ten days, the Ukrainian army has tried to prevent the island from being developed with a whole series of drone and rocket attacks. Satellite images from the US company Maxar suggest that in addition to the badly damaged “Vsevolod Bobrov”, at least one military helicopter was shot down and one air defense unit destroyed.

This May 8 satellite image shows smoke rising over Russian positions on Snake Island

However, it is extremely uncertain whether the Ukrainian military will be able to retake the island . However, it is not to be expected that the fighting for the island will subside. Because Kyiv wants to continue to prevent at all costs that the small island with its tomb of Achilles could end up becoming something like the Achilles' heel of the Ukrainian defense.