Russia withdrew forces from the strategic Black Sea outpost of Snake Island in what the defense ministry described as a “gesture of goodwill” to help restore Ukrainian grain shipments, but which Kyiv claimed was a humiliating retreat.
The ministry on Thursday said its troops had “finished fulfilling their tasks” and “demonstrated that Russia is not blocking the UN’s efforts to organize a humanitarian corridor to export agricultural goods from Ukraine”.
Kyiv rejected this, saying it had driven Russian forces from Snake Island with an artillery bombardment. Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said the victory showed that allies “should not be wary of providing Ukraine with more heavy weapons”.
Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, posted a picture on Twitter of plumes of smoke billowing from the island and hailed the “great job” of the armed forces.
The recapture of Snake Island gives Ukraine a strategic outpost close to key shipping lanes and other contested areas of the Black Sea, as well as an important symbolic victory.
Little more than an outcrop of rock, the 0.2 sq km island received global attention in the early days of the conflict when a Russian cruiser demanded the Ukrainian contingent based there surrender, only to receive the reply: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” The response became Ukraine’s rallying cry and was immortalized on a stamp showing a trooper giving a Russian ship the middle finger.
Ukraine’s army posted a video showing what they said was a Ukrainian-made Bohdana howitzer hitting targets on the island. Russia evacuated troops overnight in two speedboats, the southern command of Ukraine’s armed forces claimed.
“The occupiers have left Snake Island after failing to cope with fire from our artillery, rocket, and air strikes,” Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said in a statement.
Zaluzhny thanked “foreign partners for supplying offensive weapons” but did not say what other weapons Ukraine used to attack the island.
Ukraine’s allies have recently given it the longest-range and heaviest weaponry in the four-month conflict so far. These include US artillery rocket systems and French howitzers, but Kyiv says it needs significantly more weapons systems and ammunition to reclaim occupied territory.
Ukraine this month said it used US-made Harpoon anti-ship missiles to sink a Russian tugboat, the first time it has said it used western weapons against Russian targets in the Black Sea.
The increased Ukrainian firepower made the costs of retaining Snake Island too difficult for Russia, said defense analysts, and offers hope for unblocking grain shipments from the nearby port of Odesa.
Russia has blockaded all of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, seized ports in the neighboring Azov Sea and repeatedly struck key infrastructure for Ukraine’s grain exports, including railways and grain silos.
The UN is leading four-way talks with Turkey to end the blockade, which has shut off export routes for 80 per cent of Ukraine’s grain and threatened to cause a famine in many Middle East and African nations that buy its wheat and corn.
Putin blames Ukraine for the crisis and has said Russia will only end the blockade if the west relaxes sanctions on shipping, payments and insurance that Moscow claims are impeding its own agricultural exports.
The defense ministry said its withdrawal from Snake Island would prevent Kyiv from speculating “on the coming food crisis by saying it cannot transport grain because of Russia’s total control of the north-western part of the Black Sea”.
However, Kyiv said UN-led talks have stalled because Moscow was intent on using them to cement its dominance of the Black Sea. Ukraine is also reluctant to clear mines from its coast, which it says does not affect export routes and is necessary to guard against coastal assaults.
Russia has regularly used its presence in the Black Sea for missile strikes on the Ukrainian mainland. The crossfire has trapped some ships in Ukraine’s ports and unearthed others from using the Black Sea’s shipping lanes.