Snake Island, Ukraine
Snake Island holds a special place in Ukrainian folklore, now more than ever. Its defiant defense – when a Russian warship was famously told to piss off – and subsequent recapture rallied a nation in the early months of the conflict with Russia and pierced the myth of the invaders’ superiority.
Now, lashed by winter winds, it remains firmly in Ukrainian hands – a boulder that holds both symbolic and strategic importance.
A CNN team became the first foreign media outlet to visit the island since it was retaken in June and spoke to the commander of the operation that led to its liberation.
Snake Island, also known as Zmiinyi Island, is a few acres of rock and grass, treeless and difficult to access, located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) off the Ukrainian coast, near the sea border with Romania.
Getting there turned out to be challenging: shaken from wave to wave in a small boat for an hour, showered with sea spray, in temperatures below freezing. The Black Sea can be unforgiving, as can its dangerous shoreline. On the way back our steerable boat got stuck on a sandbank and it took six hours in the dark before we were transferred one at a time to another ship.
Snake Island is now a desolate place, strewn with rubble, its few buildings reduced to rubble, its half-submerged jetty shattered by the tide. It’s a graveyard of expensive military equipment – and littered with duds and mines. This is no place to be sloppy.
The CNN team saw at least four different types of landmines, Russian Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems, and an almost intact Tor anti-aircraft missile complex. There was also the carcass of a hit Russian military helicopter.
In a surreal scene, dozens of cats, likely descendants of the lighthouse pets from a more peaceful time, roamed among the rubble.
Ukraine maintains a small military presence on the island as an observation mission. One of those squads is actually a Russian, a volunteer in the Ukrainian Armed Forces who goes by the callsign Fortuna.
He had lived in Ukraine with his family. “And here comes Russia attacking us. If another country attacked us, we would fight too.”
Nowadays, he says, the Russians don’t attack much, at least in this corner of Ukraine.
“At this stage, the Russians are only conducting airstrikes,” Fortuna told CNN. “So we can hear them coming. Also, we have observers all over the perimeter and are receiving intel. So normally we are warned of a possible attack.”
Occasionally they see a Russian warship in the distance.
“We have to be on guard 24/7 so we never get bored. There is always something to do,” says Fortuna.
The troops here cannot communicate with their families. Even if there is a signal, turning on your phone invites you to go on strike. The small boats used to transport supplies often can’t make the voyage, so a rotation here through the elements can be extended, sometimes by a week.
Snake Island fell in the early days of the February invasion as Ukraine fought Russian forces on multiple fronts. But before that, there was a display of defiance that instantly became a meme for Ukraine’s determined resistance.
Ordered to surrender by an approaching Russian ship, one of the small detachments there replied by radio: “Russian warship: fuck off.”
Those words resonated everywhere from t-shirts to postage stamps and street signs.
One of the small departments on the island told CNN it was a pivotal moment to encourage people to fight and volunteer.
The man who led the operation to drive the Russians off the island after they occupied it for several months has not been given his real name. As an officer in military intelligence, he has the call sign Shakespeare.
“There are only four or five officers like me in Ukraine,” he told CNN. “If I reveal any details, everyone will recognize me.”
But he provided a detailed account of the plan to retake the island, which succeeded in late June.
Much of the hard work was done in May when exposed Russian positions were attacked. “It was all about choosing the right artillery and artillery combination,” said Shakespeare.
“The Russians made a mistake in assuming we couldn’t reach them there. They thought we could just fire multiple rocket launchers at them, so they installed anti-aircraft systems on the island. They were able to intercept our missiles, but we used complex attacks.”
“They just lost manpower and a lot of expensive vehicles for nothing. That was their main mistake.”
French-made CAESARS and Grad rocket launchers were used, he said, although he was less flattering about the Ukrainian-developed Bogdana howitzer, which has a range of 40 kilometers (25 miles).
“It broke more than it shot,” Shakespeare told CNN.
They were a lot of challenges, especially since firing artillery over the sea is no different than firing it over land. “Different conditions so aiming is complicated,” he added. Reconnaissance drones helped make artillery fire more accurate.
The Ukrainians also deployed the Turkey-supplied Bayrakhtar drone before the Russians introduced electronic warfare measures and air defenses to the island.
But the Russians had to ship equipment from Sevastopol in Crimea to defend the island. And that was their second mistake, said Shakespeare. This was a long and exposed supply line, vulnerable to Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.
Shakespeare recalled the first landing in late June after Russian positions had been smashed.
“It was a unit of the Marine Corps Special Ops Forces and deminers. Combat Swimmers, Miscellaneous. They checked the water for the mines. Then others on the ships could approach the island.”
What they found was an abandoned junkyard.
“There was nobody there… They left in a hurry, leaving ammunition and equipment behind.”
This included the almost intact gate complex. “If they had had the time, they would have blown it up,” Shakespeare added.
Besides the huge boost in Ukrainian morale, the retaking of Snake Island had a strategic purpose.
“If you control Snake Island, you can control the mouth of the Danube. Without securing (the) island, signing the Grains Agreement would have been impossible,” Shakespeare said, citing the UN-brokered Grains Initiative agreed in July that allowed Ukraine to resume exports through the Black Sea.
Our visit is necessarily brief. Our hosts do not want Russia to have time to plan anything, and the weather is deteriorating. In the slate gray winter afternoon we are whisked away to our rendezvous with the sandbank.
But the secret of the island stays with you. It is said to have been the tomb of Achilles and once had a Greek temple. It was contested by the Russian and Ottoman Empires. It seems that every cliff and cave hides a story.
Now there is a modern day legend to add to these fables.