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Black Sea’s Snake Island emerges as crucial in Russia-Ukraine war

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Snake Island, a small patch of land in the Black Sea near the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, has taken on symbolic significance for both sides in the conflict. Ukraine last week said it had won a major military victory on the island, an account Moscow disputes.

Authorities in Kiev said Ukrainian forces launched missile strikes and drones from the coast on June 21, targeting Russian military vehicles, anti-aircraft defenses and a radar system on Snake Island, a stretch of rock smaller than 0.7 square kilometers about 40 km southwest of Odessa.

The Russian military denied the claims, saying its defenses held up when its forces on the island intercepted all Ukrainian missiles and shot down 13 of the 15 drones.

This relentless contestation of the story says a lot about how important Snake Island is to both Kiev and Moscow. While it’s hard to tell where the truth lies, “Ukrainian missiles have indeed hit military targets” on the island, according to Sim Tack, an analyst with US military consultancy Force Analysis.

Tack studied satellite images of Snake Island after the offensive. “We can see the impact of the bombings,” he said. “We can also see the Russian Pantsir anti-aircraft vehicles that were supposedly destroyed, although it is difficult to see if they are still operational.”

It was not the first time Ukraine had attacked Russian positions around the island. On June 17, Kiev claimed it had sunk a tugboat carrying ammunition to Russian troops.

This came after Ukraine launched several offensives in May to retake Snake Island. In response, the Russian army reinforced its presence there.

‘A battle cry for Ukrainians’

Still, some analysts are raising eyebrows at the battles for Snake Island. “It has very limited strategic importance in terms of who controls the Black Sea,” said Jeff Hawn, an expert on Russian military issues and a nonresident fellow at the New Lines Institute, a US geopolitical research center.

The main feature of Snake Island is its proximity to Odessa; it has often been described as a gateway to Ukraine’s preeminent port. In theory, whoever controls this piece of land also has access to Odessa. Snake Island could thus be vital to prevent a full-blown global food crisis, as Ukraine once exported some 4.5 million tons of food a month through Odessa before the port was blocked by Russia.

But Tack suggested that Snake Island’s strategic value in this regard is overstated: “The military equipment stationed there is essentially defensive and has a very limited range,” he said.

Snake Island first came to prominence in the early days of the Russian invasion with reports that the Russian warship Moskva had demanded that Ukrainian soldiers on the island surrender. “Russian warship, go ahead,” was the reply, which quickly became a pro-Ukrainian slogan.

Snake Island has become “a sort of rallying cry for Ukrainians, who see it as a symbol of their resistance against an enemy most people thought was stronger than them,” Hawn said.

Taking back Snake Island would therefore be a “major propaganda coup” for Ukraine. It would be suggested to many that Kiev had turned the tide of the war in its favor. Moscow is all too aware of that, which is why the Russians will “do whatever it takes to hold it,” Hawn said.

Snake Island has thus become a poisonous prize for Russia. Moscow seized it because it was “part of the struggle for control of the Black Sea,” as Tack put it. However, Russia did not expect to spend so many resources defending such a small patch of land.

“The problem is that it is very difficult to properly supply this island because every boat going there is within range of Ukrainian rocket launchers,” Tack noted. And these are resources that Russia must withdraw from the other battlegrounds of the war – especially the Donbas.

Snake Island has more than just symbolic value. After the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, in late April, Snake Island could also be seen as a “static warship that cannot be sunk,” Hawn said.

Like a warship, Snake Island provides an observation post from which enemy movements in the area can be detected and used to bomb passing ships and planes. Ukraine should also keep in mind that Russia is not carrying out an amphibious assault with Snake Island as an outpost.

“The international community sees Snake Island as a clearly defined target for Ukrainian artillery. So by striking again and again, Kiev is showing that its military can challenge Russian supremacy in the Black Sea,” Hawn said.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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