Ukraine fetes Russian pullback from strategic Snake Island outpost

A satellite image shows an overview of Snake Island, Ukraine, June 21, 2022. Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS
  • Russia occupied Snake Island on first day of invasion
  • Exit deprives Moscow of strategic Black Sea outpost
  • Pullback is setback for Russian naval supremacy
  • Symbolic win for Kyiv unlikely to ease grain crisis

KYIV, June 30 (Reuters) - Russia on Thursday withdrew from Snake Island, a craggy speck of land in the Black Sea, handing Ukraine a symbolically-potent political victory and depriving Moscow of a strategic outpost for its air defences and electronic warfare systems.

The island's capture by Russian forces on the first day of their invasion entered Ukrainian folklore as a tale of bold resistance after Kyiv said that one of its border guards had told a Russian warship demanding their surrender to "fuck off".

Just over four months later, Kyiv's announcement that it had driven Russia from the outcrop with artillery and missile strikes lifted the spirit of Ukrainians worn down by Russia's grinding eastern advance. read more

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Russia cast the exit as a deliberate withdrawal, an act of goodwill to demonstrate it was not obstructing UN efforts to unblock grain that is stranded at Ukraine's Black Sea ports, an assertion dismissed by Kyiv as untrue.

But military analysts in Kyiv said Russia's presence on the island had become untenable because of Ukrainian attacks on Russian supply lines to the outcrop from Crimea, and that much of the equipment deployed there had already been destroyed.

"Ukrainian aviation and Bayraktar drones effectively cut off supplies to the Russian contingent that was deployed there," Oleksandr Musiyenko, a Kyiv-based military analyst, said.

Ukrainian armed forces commander Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said Ukrainian-made Bohdana howitzers played an important role in driving out the Russian forces and thanked foreign partners for their support.

"Trying to retain positions on a small and barren piece of land in range of heavy artillery and without the means to suppress that artillery is a recipe to steadily accumulate casualties," Jack Watling, a military expert at RUSI in London, said.

Russia had deployed air defences including Tor and Pantsir systems on the island as well as electronic warfare and radio intelligence units.

"We practically destroyed all the equipment on the island. The garrison's presence had simply become pointless. What could rank and file soldiers with automatic weapons do on the island? Nothing. There isn't even fresh water there," Oleg Zhdanov, a Kyiv-based military analyst, said.

NO END TO GRAIN CRISIS

The lost Kremlin foothold gives Ukraine a freer hand to use military drones and operate in the western Black Sea, but it is unlikely to help ease the crisis over Ukraine's blockaded grain, Kyiv-based analysts said.

It was also unlikely that Ukraine would itself take up positions and deploy anti-ship weapons on the island to try to beef up its coastline defences because the island remained within the firing range of Russian forces, Zhdanov said.

Mathieu Boulègue, an analyst at Chatham House, said Russia's pullback might be part of a plan to let the Kremlin strengthen its military forces elsewhere in the Black Sea.

"We should not be fooled by it ... It might be short-term relief but there will be long-term pain."

Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, Ukrainian grain shipments have stalled from its Black Sea ports and millions of tonnes of grain are stuck in silos.

Moscow says the onus is on Kyiv to remove mines from the ports to free up shipping lanes and says Western sanctions against it are worsening the situation.

"This will not unblock the export of grain. Russia retains shooting control over this area of the waters. One option is that the United Nations forms a humanitarian convoy, then maybe there would be a chance to get these ships out with grain from our ports for export," Zhdanov said.

He said that Western supplies of arms including Harpoon anti-ship weapons meant that Russian warships had not come in to support their forces on the island.

The announcement of the Russian pullback was cheered by residents of Kyiv where the catchphrase "Russian warship, go fuck yourself" is sold on everything from postage stamps to T-shirts and office mugs.

"We will never give up... Never ever," said 26-year-old Karolina Gulshani. "The people on the Snake Island they knew this was like a fight they cannot win but they were still, like 'fuck you'."

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Additional reporting by Alexander Winning, Mark Trevelyan and Liz Piper; Writing by Tom Balmforth Editing by Nick Macfie, Frank Jack Daniel and Andrew Heavens

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