What is this island?
Snake Island is a piece of land with an area of about 20 hectares, located 35 km from the coast of Romania directly opposite the mouth of the Danube and at the same distance from the land territory of Ukraine.
The island lies next to drilling platforms that produce oil and gas on the Black Sea shelf, and shipping routes linking the Ukrainian ports of Odessa, Nikolaev and Kherson with the Mediterranean basin.
Serpentine has been known since ancient times, but has never had any significant significance due to its peripheral position and generally not the most favorable conditions: there are no minerals, no rich flora or fauna, no opportunities for agriculture or other useful economic activities.
In the early 2000s, Romania tried to prove that Serpentine was not an island at all, but a rock, which could become a threat to Ukraine's exclusive economic rights to the adjacent water area. The International Court of Justice did not consider these arguments convincing, but drew a line of delimitation of the maritime border, taking into account Romanian interests.
After the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia in 2014, the Ukrainians turned Zmeiny into a forward outpost for monitoring Russian military activity: not only on the Crimean peninsula, but also on the seized drilling platforms of Chornomorneftegaz.
Back in August 2021, American analysts Andrew D'Anieri and Doug Klain noted that Serpentine is one of the potential "hot spots" in the event of a war between Russia and Ukraine:
“If Putin succeeds in capturing Serpent Island, Russian troops will be in a strong position to cut off all maritime access to Ukraine and increase control over the northern Black Sea.”
The military base on the island, which has a radar station (RLS) and anti-ship systems, is capable of blocking the northwestern part of the Black Sea, and the medium-range air defense systems installed there can cover both part of the territory of Romania and almost the entire Odessa region, together with Odessa.
How they fought for Serpentine
At the beginning of the war, the capture of Zmeinoye, apparently, was considered by the General Staff of the RF Armed Forces as the first stage in the preparation of a landing operation in the Odessa area. On the evening of February 24, the island was occupied by Russian troops, landed with the support of the Moskva missile cruiser and the Vasily Bykov patrol ship, after rocket and bomb strikes from the sea and from the air. Servicemen of the 810th Separate Guards Marine Brigade, including conscripts, took part in the operation.
Since the Russian navy dominated the seas, and Serpentine was within range of Russian aviation based in Crimea, the Ukrainian command did not count on any long-term defense, placing there a symbolic garrison of less than 100 people without heavy weapons.
On the same day, the outrageous Russian publicist Alexander Dugin, who in the West is considered almost an ideologue and inspirer of the current confrontational line in the Kremlin's foreign policy, wrote that the capture of Zmeinoye has a certain mystical dimension, because from the point of view of "sacred geography", the one who controls Snake Island, controls the course of world history.
According to Dugin, the world-historical role of the Snake is due to the ancient sanctuary of Apollo located there. True, in this case, one will have to admit that the course of world history for 70 years was determined by Romania, which owned the island from 1878 to 1948, and since 1991 by Ukraine.
The loss of Serpentine, however, did incur serious symbolic costs for Kyiv. During the Crimean Platform Diplomatic Forum in August 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said precisely on Serpentine:
“Snake is an island, and this is symbolic. Any island of any (area) territory of the Ukrainian land, and we will defend with all our might.
In addition, the Ukrainian authorities found themselves in an awkward position by hastily declaring the defenders of the island dead and posthumously awarding them the titles of Heroes of Ukraine. Subsequently, it turned out that 82 marines and border guards from Serpentine had surrendered .
However, the war against Ukraine from the very first days did not go as planned in the Kremlin, and the plot with the words of Zelensky in Russian propaganda failed to beat. It was not possible to use the puncture with the posthumous awarding of surrendered Ukrainian servicemen. Everything was overshadowed by the famous record with the message of Russian sailors to a well-known address.
As a result, the Ukrainians managed to make a loud and successful information campaign out of an objective failure with the defense of the island. The myth of the feat on the Serpentine, as well as the catchy slogan about the "Russian warship", went to the people, playing an important role in working with Western public opinion and agitation within the country.
And the same "Russian warship", whose role in the video was played by the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation, the cruiser "Moskva", soon really went to the bottom. On April 13, 2022, it was sunk in the Zmeiny area with the help of anti-ship missiles (probably, the blow was not delivered by Ukrainian Neptunes, as is commonly believed, but by Western missiles ).
Now the use of "Moskva" to capture Zmeinoye and subsequent presence near the Ukrainian coast (obviously, based on the regular S-300F sea-based anti-aircraft missile system) seems to be an excessive and unnecessary risk.
The missile cruiser is actually designed to destroy enemy aircraft carriers and is armed with P-1000 Vulkan anti-ship missiles with a range of up to 1000 km (they are capable of carrying nuclear warheads). There were no targets proportionate to “Moscow” in the Ukrainian theater of operations.
After the death of the flagship, the Black Sea Fleet began to behave more cautiously. His ships tried not to enter the zone of action of Ukrainian anti-ship systems or stay there for a minimum time. Nevertheless, the Navy continued to suffer losses from Ukrainian UAVs, performing the tasks of supplying Zmeiny Island and delivering there the equipment necessary to create a sustainable air defense system.
The vulnerability of the garrison and the weapons delivered to the island was several times demonstrated by successful air strikes using Bayraktar UAVs and Su-27 fighters. As the Armed Forces of Ukraine received long-range artillery and modern anti-ship weapons from the Western allies, Zmeiny found himself in the zone of confident fire control directly from the coast. On June 30, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation announced that the garrison was leaving Zmeiny.
The true goals of Russia
Apparently, the blockade of the Ukrainian Black Sea ports could be carried out without occupying Zmeinoye due to the superiority of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and aviation. And for the safety of the permanent garrison on the island, control over the coast of the Odessa region is needed, from where cannon and rocket artillery can fire.
The desire at all costs to maintain a presence on Serpentine is difficult to explain with any reasonable reasons. If we proceed from the true goals of the war pursued by Putin, that is, the surrender of Ukraine, the seizure of all Ukrainian territory and the establishment of a puppet government there, then control over Zmein by the time of the ceasefire does not matter: the conditional proteges of the Kremlin in Kyiv will still give the island to Russia under a military base .
Moscow's desire to maintain a presence on Zmein at all costs is difficult to explain with reasonable reasons
In the same way, the presence of the Russian garrison on Zmeiny does not matter in the event of a Ukrainian victory, which could be, for example, the Ukrainian army's entry into the line of contact as of February 23. Then, of course, no one will leave Serpentine behind Russia.
Keeping Serpentine at any cost is justified only if the war ends with a long truce on the lines occupied by the parties. Then the Russian troops, having retained the garrison on the island, could begin to create a full-fledged military base there. However, both Russia and Ukraine and its Western allies have so far declared their rejection of a compromise option for ending the war.
The stubbornness of the battle for Serpentine can only be explained by the fact that the strategic importance of the island is exaggerated by Russian generals and admirals, who continue to think in terms of the Second World War. Indeed, in those years, the island located near the Danube Delta made it possible to reliably control all ships leaving the Danube for the Black Sea.
But since then, the capabilities of both the navy and tracking equipment, including satellites, as well as anti-ship defense and air defense systems, have increased by an order of magnitude. And now it is possible to control shipping in the Danube Delta or, for example, blockade Odessa from the sea without possessing Serpentine, leaving your ships outside the range of Ukrainian anti-ship systems.
Thus, the actions of the Russian command in the area of Zmeinoye, most likely, predetermined the desire, which has been going on since Soviet times, to keep, regardless of the victims, any occupied territory.
Why Russia left the Serpentine
Literally a few days before the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the Russian garrison was leaving Zmeiny as a “goodwill step” (in this wording instead of the generally accepted “goodwill gesture”), having completed the “implementation of the assigned tasks”, in the pro-Kremlin media a whole scattering of materials appeared in which loyalist experts and officials explained how important the island was to Russia.
Military expert, head of the Department of Eurasian Integration and Development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of the Institute of CIS Countries Vladimir Evseyev, in an interview with the Ukraina.ru portal (owned by the state news agency Rossiya Segodnya) argued that Snake Island is absolutely necessary to control the mouth of the Danube and deliver weapons to pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria.
The captain of the 3rd rank of the reserve, military expert Maxim Klimov , spoke to the Internet publication Vzglyad, close to the Presidential Administration:
“There were proposals in the expert community to leave the island, that it was supposedly not needed and that it was inconvenient to keep it. But Serpentine definitely needs to be kept. Judging by satellite images, there has been a significant strengthening of our forces.”
Military expert, editor-in-chief of the National Defense magazine Igor Korotchenko, in a commentary for the Tsargrad TV channel, by the odious Orthodox businessman Konstantin Malofeev , emphasized the importance of Serpentine for controlling "sea communications to Odessa."
Deputy Yuri Shvytkin, deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee on Defense, told the pro-Kremlin Lente.ru about the need to hold the island so as not to pose a threat to military installations and ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea with anti-ship systems supplied to Ukraine.
The most incredible story, full of genuine but unsung heroism, was told by State Duma deputy, former commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army Andrei Gurulev in his personal Telegram channel. According to him, Major General Mikhail Yasnikov, Deputy Commander of the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation for Logistics, mastered the profession of a floating crane operator within an hour in order to solve the most important task - to deliver the Pantsir air defense missile system to the Snake, since the civilian crane operator refused to participate in the risky operation .
Gurulev ended his post like this:
“The determination and courage of Mikhail Yasnikov to take full responsibility, to lead people along, the courage and heroism of all the crew members and the boatswain's team made it possible to save all the servicemen who guard the Zmeiny Island. We need control over this island, this is a strategically important object, so let's thank our heroes from the bottom of our hearts."
Despite such a serious development of the information agenda in the media, the Russian Ministry of Defense without hesitation depreciated the feat of Yasnikov and the reputation of pro-government experts with its “goodwill step”.
It must be assumed that the Russian command finally realized that the war had become protracted and could last for many more months or even years. Accordingly, attempts to gain a foothold on Zmeinoye will lead to even greater losses in people and especially in military equipment (boats and ships, electronic warfare and air defense systems).
According to estimates by the Ukrainian Forbes, Russia has lost almost $1 billion worth of weapons and military equipment on Zmeiny Island and its environs: the Moskva missile cruiser is worth $750 million, at least eight destroyed air defense systems worth $100 million, three sunk boats and an auxiliary vessel, this is more $50 million Plus at least one helicopter ($8 million) and a radar station ($6 million).
It is impossible to use the island’s garrison in the current operational situation, since an amphibious operation with an eye on Odessa seems to be a lost cause due to the death of the Moskva missile cruiser and the supply of anti-ship systems by Ukraine’s Western allies.
Without the task of preparing a landing force, the Russian garrison on the island made sense only in the event of a long-term truce in the positions occupied by the parties. But the constant attempts to fortify were consistently violated by UAV and Ukrainian aviation strikes. And after the Armed Forces of Ukraine received and deployed the received long-range artillery systems on the coast, it became completely clear that permanent air or sea cover and exhausting counter-battery combat would be required to eliminate this threat.
It is unlikely that the Russian command in the foreseeable future will try to recapture the island of Serpents. At least until an offensive begins in the Nikolaevsky direction, which will endanger the Odessa operational area from land.
Placing a garrison of the Ukrainian Armed Forces there is also difficult, since Russia still has an overwhelming superiority in long-range weapons and aviation. Already after the withdrawal of the Russian Su-30 garrison from the air base in the Crimean Belbek, strikes were inflicted on Serpentine (according to the Ukrainian side, with phosphorus bombs).
Aleksey Arestovich, adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are not going to repeat the mistakes of the Russian military and will not try to place a garrison on the island or simply carry out a mission to plant a flag there.
Most likely, Serpentine will remain "no one's" and, accordingly, uninhabited until one of the parties manages to change the situation "on the ground" in their favor.
Either the Armed Forces of Ukraine will push the Russian troops to the Crimea and begin to threaten the aviation and navy forces stationed there, and then it will really make sense to deploy anti-ship systems on Zmeinoye.
Either the Russian Armed Forces will launch an offensive against Nikolaev and Odessa and be able to tie up or divert the main forces on the southern flank of the Ukrainian defense, as well as significantly reduce the coastline from which it is possible to fire on Zmeinoye, which will create conditions for a new attempt to gain a foothold on the island.