Russian troops have withdrawn from Snake Island in the Black Sea after repeated assaults by Ukrainian forces, a move that is a setback for Moscow’s forces and possibly undermines their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.
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.
Coming only a week after the Kremlin bragged about repelling a Ukrainian attempt to retake the island, the Russian withdrawal appeared to be another instance of Moscow’s scaling down its military ambitions in the face of Ukrainian resistance.
Both the Russians and Ukrainians confirmed the retreat on Thursday, with the Ukrainians saying it had come after a military campaign that kicked off more than a week ago, repeatedly 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.
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“There are no more Russians on Zmiinyi,” said Andrii Yermak, the head of the presidential office of Ukraine. “The Armed Forces conducted an excellent operation.”
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 in the northwestern corner of the Black Sea. Russia’s de facto naval blockade has prevented Ukraine from exporting most of its prewar average monthly supply of five million tons of grain.
And despite the Russian statement, there was no indication that the Kremlin was prepared to allow safe passage of Ukrainian vessels leaving the port of Odesa.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, said on Tuesday that Ukraine had destroyed three anti-aircraft missile systems recently installed on the island. She said the most recent attack had left the radar station inoperable, making it impossible to provide assistance to the Russian troops on the island.
The fortress island was a target for the Russians since the first day of the invasion, when Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva, arrived to order the surrender of the soldiers manning the tiny Ukrainian outpost. The soldiers’ salty refusal became a rallying cry for the nation.
The sinking of the Moskva in April, one of Ukraine’s most widely celebrated victories of the war, heightened the importance of the island to both Ukraine and Russia.
Russia moved to bring powerful surface-to-air missile systems to the island to support its ground forces. The Russian Navy also started operating further from the Ukrainian coast, out of range of land-based anti-ship missiles.
But the danger for Russian ships increased as more powerful Western anti-ship systems began arriving in late May. Around June 20, Ukrainian forces launched their renewed assault on the island, striking a Russian tugboat as it was on a mission to deliver 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.
But the fight for the island continued. Satellite images released over the past week showed the results as seen from space — new large scars dotting the 46 acres of rock and grass rising from the sea.
On Thursday morning, in the final assault reported by the Ukrainian military, it 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.
The last Russians there were seen boarding two boats and speeding away. But given its vulnerability, it was unclear whether the Ukrainians would try to restore their own garrison on Snake Island.