Ukraine fails to take Snake Island from Russia; why is it important?

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

A large-scale battle for Zmiinyi Island or the Snake Island or the Serpent Island in the Black Sea took place on May 7, reported Russia and Ukraine.

The Russian side says they shot down a Ukrainian Su-24 bomber, a Su-27 fighter, three Mi-8 helicopters with troops and two Bayraktar-TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles near Zmiinyi Island. The Ukrainian assault boat Stanislav was also destroyed.

Ukraine says it sunk a Russian Serna landing craft and two Raptor assault boats in the area.

Snake Island

Snake Island is the only tectonic uplift in the entire Black Sea and, therefore, the only island in the full sense of the word. The island is a rock and has rocky shores, reaching 3-4 meters in the northeast and 25 meters in the southwest. At the highest point, which is 41.3 meters, one can observe the open spaces of the sea. The length and width of the island are respectively about 615 and 560 meters. The island has gorges and grottoes extending from the sea deep into the island.

Before the Russians took over, the Eighteen hectares island was inhabited by a small, up to a hundred people, an army garrison, a pig and several goats.

The island is located 120 kilometres south of Odessa and 45 kilometres east of the mouth of the Danube River. 

The island is a difficult place to live. There is no natural vegetation cover except for thin grass and some completely unsightly thorns. Freshwater, of course, is also absent here. 

The climate on the island is temperate, steppe. Its peculiarity is frequent winds, weather changes and high humidity. Trees do not grow on the island, and it is covered with steppe grasses. In summer, the sun is merciless, and winter brings piercing wind, storms and seafoam flying over the island. In addition, people experience great psychological stress on the island, feeling the isolation of space. Even the Ukrainian Military finds it challenging to replenish its troops. 

The island is two levels. There is a helipad and a border outpost on the upper level, and the settlement occupies the lower level.

The island is located near the sea border between Ukraine and Romania. The Romanians wanted to take it for themselves, actively proving that the Snake island is a rock, not an island. It was important for them since it is located just on the dividing line in the area of ​​​​the oil-bearing shelf. But Ukraine, in the international court, defended its rights to the island and, accordingly, a 12-mile navigation zone and a 200-mile economic zone, which includes this shelf with an oil and gas field at the bottom of the Black Sea, were given to them. Romania walked away with the bulk of natural resources.

History of Snake Island

Snake Island became famous internationally quite recently, and this is due, first of all, to the territorial dispute over it between Ukraine and Romania. According to historical and literary reminiscences, the island was known 3000 years ago. This place was sacred to the ancients. So the ancient Greeks believed that it was here that the entrance to the underworld of the dead was located. The Soviets planned to build a nuclear power plant on the island.

The first mention of people on the island dates back to the 7th century BC. These were the Greeks, and they began to develop the Northern Black Sea region. They brought to the island the cult of the hero of the Trojan War – Achilles. Many ancient authors, more than 30, described the island. Among them are Pausanias, Strabo, Arian and Euripides.

During its long existence, the island has had many names. It was known as the island of Achilles, Levka, Philoxia, Fidonisi, Ilan-Ada, the Island of the Blessed, and the Serpent.

Until the end of the 18th century, the island belonged to the Ottoman Empire for a long time. It is the first “official” owner of the island.

In 1878, the island became the property of Romania, a new state that had just appeared on the map of Europe.

In 1946, the island became part of the USSR’s Ukrainian SSR. Since 1991 it was a part of Ukraine. Now it is under Russia. 

Why is Snake Island so important?

The military, political and economic interests of Ukraine make the rock in the sea a zone of the state’s strategic interests.

The powerful radars of the air defense troops make it possible to “comb” the territory with a radius of several hundred kilometres, thus providing radio technical cover for the country’s airspace.

The area is also vital as there are energy resources on the Black Sea shelf, which could have made Ukraine independent of energy imports.

Snake Island was the most closed Ukrainian territory in the Black Sea, which is its southwestern borderline. Its closest neighbours are Romania and Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. The island is 40 minutes flying from the nearest military airfield in Odessa. From Crimea, the island is just 35 kilometres away.

From a military point of view, other than a radar station, this island is of no particular importance either for Russia or Ukraine. Back in Soviet times, few combat swimmers of the Black Sea Fleet were posted on the island. After the collapse of the USSR, Ukrainian intelligence agents were initially stationed there, but later they were removed from there, and only a small border garrison of 50-70 people remained on the island. When Russia took over the island, they found 82 military personnel from Ukraine.

The current importance of Snake Island is that it has become the symbol of Ukrainian resistance against Russia. But Russia says it is overhyped.


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