Russian troops have withdrawn from Snake Island in the Black Sea after repeated assaults by Ukrainian forces, a move that is a setback for Moscow’s forces and possibly undermines their control over vital shipping lanes for grain in the Black Sea.
The retreat came after sustained Ukrainian attacks — including with powerful, newly arrived Western weapons — made it impossible for Russian forces to hold the island, a small speck of land 20 miles off the coast of Odesa that has played an outsized role throughout the war.
Control of the shipping lanes has implications that go beyond the battle for Ukraine’s sovereignty. The Russian Navy has effectively cut off shipping from Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea, stopping the flow of grain and oilseeds to the rest of the world, raising the cost of food and creating the likelihood of shortages and even famines in some countries, especially in Africa.
While the United Nations and many Western democracies have accused Moscow of using food as a weapon to weaken support for Ukraine, the Kremlin has tried to shift blame for the situation to Kyiv, accusing Ukraine of refusing to clear mines from its ports.
The fortress island has little value except as a base for Black Sea operations and has been a target for the Russians since the first day of the invasion. The Russian withdrawal, coming only a week after the Kremlin bragged about repelling a Ukrainian attempt to retake the island, appeared to be another instance of Moscow’s scaling down its military ambitions in the face of Ukrainian resistance.
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Both sides confirmed the retreat on Thursday. The Ukrainians said it had come after a weeklong campaign targeting the island and Russian efforts to resupply the garrison there with missile and artillery fire.
The last Russian soldiers on the island, which is called Zmiinyi in Ukrainian, were reported fleeing overnight on two speedboats, according to the Ukrainian military’s southern command. “There are no more Russians on Zmiinyi,” said Andrii Yermak, the head of the presidential office of Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry, in a statement, sought to cast the retreat as “a gesture of goodwill” that would “not allow Kyiv to speculate on the impending food crisis,” since control of the island is vital to securing the shipping lanes. The Russian de facto blockade, enforced by its warships and submarines, has prevented Ukraine from exporting its prewar average of about six million metric tons of grain each month.
Still, there was no indication that the Kremlin was prepared to allow safe passage of Ukrainian vessels leaving the port of Odesa. The Crimean branch of Radio Free Europe reported that five out of the seven Russian submarines in the Black Sea fleet were launched from port in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula.
Russia had moved to bring powerful surface-to-air missile systems to the island to support its ground forces.
But the Russian Navy started operating further from the Ukrainian coast, out of range of land-based anti-ship missiles provided by the United States and other NATO countries that began arriving in late May. Around June 20, Ukrainian forces renewed their assault on the island, striking a Russian tugboat delivering weapons and personnel to the island.
The Ukrainians “almost certainly” used newly delivered Harpoon missiles in the attack, according to the British military, which said it was their first demonstrated use.
Satellite images released over the past week showed the results of the battle as seen from space — new large scars dotting the 46 acres of rock and grass rising from the sea.
On Thursday morning, the Ukrainian military said it had used missiles and artillery to knock out yet another Russian antimissile system. “Snake Island is covered in fire, explosions are heard,” the Ukrainian command said. After the Russians pulled out, it was unclear whether the Ukrainians would try to restore their own garrison, given the island’s vulnerability to attack.