Like two silver fish darting over a reef, a pair of Sukhoi SU-27 fighter bombers — the Ukrainian air force’s most potent combat aircraft — are in the last moments of a night-time low-level attack over the Black Sea.
Seen through the night vision camera of a loitering Bayraktar drone, the planes reach a small land mass, spitting decoy flares in their wakes to confuse Russian missile systems.
As the Sukhois cross the target area there is a series of brilliant flashes, their bombs detonating among buildings and alongside a pier. Secondary explosions and palls of smoke, that blossom until they almost entirely obscure the drone’s view, suggest the jets have hit substantial fuel or munition stores.
The dramatic footage, filmed this week, is proof that the totemic battle for Snake Island is entering a new phase.
This remote outcrop first made headlines earlier this year as the scene of a now legendary act of Ukrainian defiance. Now the pendulum has swung the other way — and so the Snake Island story follows the arc of the narrative of this absurd and bloody war.
Smoke rises over Snake Island, Ukraine amid Russia’s attack on the country. The totemic battle for Snake Island is entering a new phase, writes Richard Pendlebury
By size and onshore natural resources, it is an unlikely prize to be fought over, being little more than a rock the size of 20 football pitches.
It rises — barely — out of the Black Sea, 30 miles off the Ukrainian coast, near the mouth of the Danube River. But its strategic — and now propaganda — importance is considerable.
In 2018 I visited the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, the great naval port in what had become occupied Crimea. I remember passing in the street a Russian youth who was wearing a T-shirt showing Putin blowing his nose into the U.S. flag.
Yet I was told repeatedly by serving and veteran naval officers I met there that ‘we do not want a war with the West’.
But President Putin has now instigated just such a war, by proxy. And, after initial, easy victories, it is the Black Sea Fleet that has caught the cold.
Battered and harried by the Ukrainians, the fleet has seen its flagship and several other vessels sunk or damaged with no prospect of reinforcement since Turkey closed the Bosphorus Strait — the waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea and ultimately on to the Mediterranean — to all warships in late February.
Snake Island — 185 miles west of Sevastopol — is the crucible of this conflict; a 46-acre anvil upon which Ukraine’s air and missile forces are currently attempting to break Russian military power in the north-west of the Black Sea.
Much is at stake. If all had gone according to Russian plan, the island would be an impregnable staging post for offensive operations against the region around Odessa — Ukraine’s biggest and only major port not to have fallen.
If sophisticated radar and missile platforms were established on the island they would dominate air, land and sea for hundreds of miles.
The island’s secure possession would also assist any Russian expansion of the land war into Moldova or the Kremlin-allied breakaway state of Transnistria
Then there is the question of global grain supplies. Snake Island is located on the shipping lane which links Odessa to the world.
Ukraine was the fourth largest exporter of wheat in the world, and the largest exporter of sunflower oil, much of which passed through Odessa. Now that route is blocked.
Snake — called Zmiinyi in Ukrainian — Island has been occupied and contested for millennia. In ancient times a temple to Achilles stood on the spot where today there is what is left of a modern lighthouse.
In the last two centuries it has been controlled by the Ottoman Empire, Romania and the Soviet Union. In 1991 the island came under the sovereignty of Ukraine.
Twenty years ago, during a territorial dispute with Romania, Ukraine built a small settlement, named Bile, on the rock, to house a detachment from the State Border Guard and their families.
A research station was manned there during part of the year. Otherwise, the hillock surrounded by sea, languished in obscurity — until one momentous day.
February 24, 6pm
The pride of the Black Sea Fleet, its flagship the Moskva, arrived offshore during the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The legend of Snake Island was about to come into being.
A guided-missile cruiser, weighing 11,500 tons and with a crew of over 500, the Moskva was the most powerful warship in the Black Sea. It was accompanied by the Vasily Bykov, a 1,700-ton patrol ship.
An audio clip — which went viral — revealed a radio conversation in which a Russian naval officer told the border guards on Snake Island to ‘lay down your arms immediately to avoid bloodshed and unjustified deaths . . . otherwise you will be bombed’.
In the clip, the guards could be heard talking amongst themselves and agreeing ‘this is it’.
Then one of their number — later identified as 32-year-old Roman Hrybov — gave their definitive response over the radio link: ‘Russian warship, go f*** yourself’.
It has become a catchphrase on every Ukrainian frontline. Their rejection of surrender terms would also be immortalised in a Ukrainian postage stamp, depicting a border guard giving the Moskva the middle finger.
The Russian ships opened fire on the island — a moment livestreamed by another of the border guards. Communication between the defenders and the mainland was lost. By 10pm Snake Island was in Russian hands.
But the propaganda battle had only just begun.
That evening, Ukraine’s President Zelensky told his nation that all 13 border guards based on Snake Island had been killed. They would be awarded, posthumously, the country’s highest honour, ‘Hero of Ukraine,’ he said.
The Kremlin disputed Zelensky’s account. No one had been killed — in fact, 82 Ukrainian servicemen on the island had ‘laid down their weapons and voluntarily surrendered’, they said.
They had been taken to Sevastopol as prisoners and would be asked to sign an agreement not to take further part in the conflict, to secure their releases. At this stage, the Russians were confident that the war would be over in days.
Film of the alleged prisoners was shown on Russian TV. The Ukrainian authorities said the footage was fake and the POWs were in fact played by Russian actors. The same day, according to the Russian authorities, a squadron of 16 Ukrainian navy boats attacked Russian vessels off Snake Island, in an attempt to retake it. Six of the Ukrainian boats were sunk, Russia said, the rest driven off.
The Russian government accused the U.S. of providing intelligence support to Ukraine during the action. Washington denied it, but was clearly taking an interest in events around Snake Island.
More Russian naval successes — or ‘piracy’ as Kyiv described it — followed. The Ukrainians reported that the invaders had seized a civilian search-and-rescue vessel, the tug Sapfir, that had been sent with two priests aboard the previous day on a ‘humanitarian’ mission to recover survivors of the attack.
Kyiv’s narrative about what had happened to the border guards on Snake Island also changed dramatically. A Facebook post by the Ukrainian navy stated ‘our brothers-in-arms are alive and well’.
A further announcement described how servicemen on the island had ‘twice bravely repulsed the attacks of the Russian occupiers’ but could not continue fighting as they had run out of ammunition. The Russians had ‘completely destroyed the island’s infrastructure’, including the lighthouse.
For the next month and a half, the attention of the world became focused on the land war, particularly Russia’s failure to capture the capital Kyiv. But Ukraine remained anxious to break Russia’s maritime stranglehold — and score further propaganda victories in its David vs Goliath battle.
Ukraine announced that a Russian patrol ship had been lured inshore by a ‘special operation’ and sunk by artillery fire. Video images released on social media showed a burning vessel, purportedly the Vasily Bykov.
Ten days later another image, this time released on Russian social media, showed a boat identical to the Vasily Bykov, entering Sevastopol harbour, apparently undamaged.
Neither suggestion can be verified. But there is no dispute about what happened a few weeks later to the ship that had led the Snake Island invasion operation.
Roman Gribov – also spelled Hrybov – Ukrainian service member Roman Gribov, who was captured by Russian troops on Snake Island on February 24 and recently swapped for Russian POWs, receives an award from the head of Cherkasy Regional Military Administration Ihor Taburets in Cherkasy
The 13 border guards taken on Snake Island were released by the Russians in a prisoner swap. Roman Hrybov subsequently told a Ukrainian news outlet that he did not regret swearing, though he feared what the Russians would do to him if they found out it was he who had who uttered the now immortal riposte.
He said: ‘Since this phrase cheered up our people a little, my mother supported it, although it’s not a very nice phrase. But I’m already an adult, and can speak like that. The Russians . . . did not know who said this. And that’s good, because I think I would have been treated badly in that case. I wouldn’t have got home.’
In one of the most stunning reverses of a war that was by then already shaping into a fiasco for the Kremlin, the Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva sank, 60 miles off Odessa. It did so with an undisclosed loss of crew. Possibly hundreds. Moscow claimed the loss was a result of an accidental fire but few outside Russia accept this.
Sources have suggested that a U.S. surveillance aircraft flying over Romanian territory had identified the Moskva’s position and passed on the information.
According to Ukraine’s military, the cruiser was hit by two of its R-360 Neptune anti-ship missiles (pictured), fired from the mainland. At least one Bayraktar drone might have been used overhead to distract the Moskva’s attention from the sea-skimming sub-sonic missiles.
Whatever the detail, its loss was utterly humiliating for the Russian navy and President Putin.
It also changed the military picture around Snake Island. Russian warships now feared to go too close to the Ukrainian mainland lest they come within Neptune range. That eased the threat of an amphibious landing against Odessa.
The Moskva had also been providing the Russian garrison on Snake Island with anti-aircraft radar and missile cover. That had now been removed and the Ukrainians, on the front foot everywhere, were ready to take advantage.
By capturing Snake Island, the Russians had inherited a problem that had been Ukraine’s. Without powerful anti-aircraft or drone defences, any garrison is a sitting duck on an island with no fresh water and barely a tree or bush for cover. The Russian lines of communication and resupply to Snake Island are also far longer than those previously maintained by Ukraine.
But if Snake Island is to be of use to the Russian war effort, it has to be manned, equipped and regularly resupplied.
In the last three weeks, the hard-pressed Ukrainian air force and iconic Bayraktar drones have been taking a heavy toll of the targets that this necessity offers up.
Snake Island has become their shooting gallery.
The pride of the Black Sea Fleet, its flagship the Moskva, arrived offshore during the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The legend of Ukrainian resistance conjured up by the defence of snake island was cemented when the warship was pictured smoking in the Black Sea
Ukraine’s campaign of attrition began. Its Air Force Command South claimed strikes against Russian forces on the island that hit a control post, server equipment and three short-range Strela-10 anti-aircraft missile systems. The defences had been reduced.
Attention was turned to the Russian navy. At dawn, off Snake Island, two Russian Raptor patrol and landing boats were sunk by a Bayraktar drone. Video footage that went viral showed the boats being struck by guided missiles followed by explosions and fires.
This was the day the Sukhoi SU-27 strike reportedly took place. The aircraft swung around Snake Island and approached from the south, a direction from which they were not expected. Footage of the attack has been watched more than 2 million times on social media. But that was just one of a number of assaults on the island’s facilities during that 24 hours.
The Ukrainians also struck at one of Russia’s major resupply vessels. Social media video footage apparently showed a Russian Serna-class landing craft at dock on Snake Island attempting to unload TOR air-to-surface missile systems when it was hit by yet another Bayraktar drone.
The same day, extraordinary footage of the Bayraktar drone destruction of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter landing troops on Snake Island was released. The helicopter suddenly disappears in an enormous fireball as hapless troops scurry beneath.
Russian social media denied the destruction. But the Wagner Russian mercenary group confirmed that a Russian helicopter had indeed had been hit, along with special forces soldiers.
Two further Raptor patrol craft were allegedly targeted and destroyed by Ukrainian drones in the vicinity of the island.
The Russian defence ministry said it had repelled a recent Ukrainian effort to reclaim Snake Island, ahead of Moscow’s May 9 Victory Day parade. It claimed that in the attempt Ukraine had lost 30 drones, three Su-24 bombers, one Su-27, three armoured amphibious assault boats, ten helicopters and more than 50 troops. It also claimed that among the dead was the deputy commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Colonel Ihor Bedzai.
Bedzai’s death was first reported by the Ukrainian government on Facebook on Monday. He was in a Mi-14 helicopter shot down by a Russian fighter jet. But the location of his death was undisclosed.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych has said that Ukraine is not trying to recapture the island. It is far easier to continue hitting Russian targets there.
The Ministry of Defence supported this view. A spokesman said: ‘Russia’s current efforts to augment its forces on Zmiinyi [Snake] Island offer Ukraine more opportunities to engage Russian troops and attrit materiel.’
On Thursday night, Ukraine claimed that another Russian naval vessel, the logistics support ship Vsevolod Bobrov, was on fire in the vicinity of the disputed rock.
Snake Island has almost come full circle. Ukraine is turning defeat into victory.