By Matija Šerić
On February 24, 2022, the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops occupied Snake Island, a small but strategically important position in the Black Sea about 140 km south of Odessa. The 13 Ukrainian soldiers stationed there bravely repelled the Russian attacks twice, but they could not continue the fight because they ran out of ammunition. Photos and audio recordings of Ukrainian defenders defying Russian attackers have gone viral. Ukraine celebrated the story with patriotic fervor, issuing a commemorative postage stamp. All the defenders were believed to have died and were posthumously honored by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, however it was later reported that they had survived and were in captivity. When Ukraine regained control of Snake Island on June 30, it marked a huge and much-needed morale boost for Ukrainian soldiers.
Snake Island is a key strategic point of Ukraine in the Black Sea. The reason is the proximity of Romania (a member of NATO) and the fact that it is located on the edge of Ukrainian territorial waters in the Black Sea. The island has an X shape, an area of 0.205 square km. The highest point on the island is 41 meters above sea level. The island does not have a prominent mountain, but rather a hilly area with low slopes. Despite its small size, the American think tank Atlantic Council concluded that Snake Island is “the key to Ukraine’s maritime territorial claims”. The rocky islet is located 35 km southwest of the mainland of Ukraine, east of the Danube delta. It has strategic value for controlling the northwestern Black Sea, Ukrainian coastal cities and shipping routes that form an important part of the global grain supply chain.
Conflicts and warfare on and around this island with a strange name are nothing new, but a continuity that has been going on for centuries. The stories go back thousands of years to the mythological Trojan War of the ancient Greeks. Snake Island seems like a bizarre name for such an important location, but the island got that name anyway. The ancient Greeks originally called Snake Island Leuke – meaning “white”, and the Romans similarly called it Alba, probably because of the white marble formations that can be found on the island. According to the ancient Greek writer Dionysius Periegetes, the reason is that the snakes found on the island were white in color. However, this seems to be a myth, as there is no sign of snakes on the island. The local population uses the Ukrainian word zimiinyi for the island, which means “winter”. Snake Island has long been associated with Achilles, the great warrior in Greek myth who was considered invincible except for a single vulnerable point, his heel. The island was sacred to Achilles and had a temple of the hero with a statue inside. People came to the island and sacrificed or released animals in honor of Achilles.
During the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks renamed the island Fidonisi after the naval battle near Fadeins, which was fought between the Ottoman and Russian fleets in 1788, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1787–1792. After the next Russian-Turkish war of 1828-1829, the island became part of the Russian Empire until 1856. In 1877, after another Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, the Ottoman Empire gave Snake Island and the Northern Dobruja region to Romania, as compensation for the Russian annexation of the Romanian region of Southern Bessarabia. In World War I, being allied with the Romanians, the Russians operated a wireless station on the island, which was destroyed on June 25, 1917, when it was bombed by the Ottoman cruiser Midilli. The lighthouse, which was built in 1860, was also damaged. The Treaty of Versailles of 1920 reaffirmed the island as part of Romania. The lighthouse was rebuilt in 1922. During the Second World War, the island served as a fortress for the Axis Powers, and a radio station was located on it. Near the island, minefields were laid that damaged or sank Soviet ships and submarines. The island was a target of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet but was never conquered until August 30, 1944, when the Romanian marines were evacuated from the island.
The Paris Peace Treaties of 1947 stipulated that Romania hand over Northern Bukovina, the Herts region, Budjak and Bessarabia to the Soviet Union, but the mouths of the Danube and Snake Island are not mentioned. Until 1948, Snake Island was part of Romania. On February 4, 1948, Romania and the Soviet Union signed a protocol that left under Soviet administration Snake Island and several islets on the Danube south of the 1917 Romanian-Russian border. Romania contested the validity of this protocol, as neither country had ever ratified it. However, it did not officially claim these territories. In the same year, 1948, during the Cold War, a Soviet radar station (for naval and anti-aircraft purposes) was built on the island.
The possession of the Soviet Union over Snake Island was confirmed by the Agreement between the Government of the People’s Republic of Romania and the Government of the USSR on the regime of the Romanian-Soviet state border, cooperation and mutual assistance in border matters, signed in Bucharest on February 27, 1961. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Ukraine inherited control of the island. Numerous Romanian parties have consistently argued that the island should be included in its territory. According to the Romanians, in the peace treaties of 1918 and 1920, the island was considered part of Romania, and it was not mentioned in the 1947 treaty on changing the borders between Romania and the Soviet Union. In 1997, Romania and Ukraine signed a treaty in which both states “reaffirm that the existing border between them is inviolable and will therefore refrain, now and in the future, from any attempt to violate the border, as well as from any request, or act, confiscation and usurpation of part or all of the territory of the contracting party”. However, both countries agreed that if a resolution on the maritime boundaries is not reached within two years, then either side can go to the International Court of Justice to seek a final ruling.
Until 2007, Snake island was not inhabited by people. The settlement of Bile was founded in February 2007 with the aim of consolidating the island’s status as a populated place. This happened during the period from 2004 to 2009 when the island was part of a border dispute between Romania and Ukraine. At that time, Romania contested the technical definition of the island and the borders around it. In 2009, the International Court of Justice drew a new maritime border between Romania and Ukraine to resolve the dispute over Snake Island and parts of the Black Sea believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves – the main reason for the dispute. Romania received almost 80% of the disputed sea territory, but not the island. At the time, Ukraine claimed that Snake Island was populated and economically active, home to about 100 people, including military personnel, lighthouse keepers, scientists and their families. The island belongs to Odessa Oblast.
In the Russian-Ukrainian war of 2022, Kiev’s first major victory at sea was the sinking of the cruiser Moskva on April 14. Aside from the prestige of sinking a ship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, it showed that the Russian navy could not safely operate near the Ukrainian coast due to the persistent threat posed by Ukrainian-developed Neptune anti-ship missiles and Western-supplied Harpoon missiles. Due to the destruction of Moscow, the strategic importance of Snake Island increased as a Russian base. The loss of Russian dominance over the northwestern Black Sea was already announced by British intelligence on June 21. Russia has been defending the island since February, but Ukraine has increasingly inflicted serious damage on the Russians, sinking supply ships and damaging Russian installations on the island.
On June 30, 2022, Ukraine announced that it had pushed Russian forces off Snake Island. The new advanced weapons sent by the West to the Ukrainians have made the Russian garrison on Snake Island excessively vulnerable and completely unprofitable to defend. It can be argued that Russia’s withdrawal is primarily the result of NATO deliveries to Ukraine. Precisely because of the HIMARS missile system and other advanced missile systems, the Russian garrison on the island suffered heavy losses and the assessment was that it was better to withdraw, which, albeit hesitantly, was finally admitted by the Russian officials themselves.
As the Ukrainian-Russian war on land dragged on, this undoubted Ukrainian success at sea has strategic significance. First, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Snake Island symbolically and actually marks the liberation of a part of Ukrainian territory, regardless of how small it is. In military and transport terms, by capturing the island at an early stage of the invasion, Russia secured a key position that enabled better control over the northwestern part of the Black Sea. Russian ships were able to cruise freely in the surrounding area around the island without fear of suffering more serious enemy fire, and in addition they had the support of the anti-aircraft defense system on the island. Now Russian ships have become far more vulnerable. The Russians thus lost a useful military position on the island, the protection of their shipping and the surrounding airspace. The liberation of the island also means that Odessa Oblast is no longer under threat of direct naval invasion and that Russian troops no longer have the ability to deploy coastal missile systems on the island that can launch rockets into Ukrainian territory.
Although the Ukrainian army has taken control of the island, it does not expect that Ukraine will permanently station combat troops there, as they would be seriously injured in missile and drone strikes by Russian forces. What is most important for Ukrainians, apart from the patriotic symbol of the island, is the fact that Russian forces can no longer benefit from their strategic position. For Russia, leaving Snake Island is embarrassing and can be described as a defeat, but a defeat that is not fatal because the outcome of the war will be decided in some other locations, on the mainland.
*Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.