Snake Island, Ukraine
Snake Island occupies a special place in Ukrainian folklore, now more than ever. His defiant defense – when a Russian warship was loudly ordered to “stand down” – and then the fightback that gripped the nation in the first months of the conflict with Russia, shattered the myth of the invaders’ superiority.
Now, battered by the winter winds, it rests firmly in Ukrainian hands, a spot of rock with both symbolic and strategic significance.
A CNN team became the first foreign media to visit the island since it was retaken in June and spoke with the commander of the operation that freed it.
Several hectares of rock and grass, treeless and difficult to reach, Snake Island, also known as Zmiini Island, is located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) off the coast of Ukraine, near its sea border with Romania.
Getting there was difficult: an hour of paddling from wave to wave in a small boat, drenched in spray in sub-zero temperatures. The Black Sea can be unforgiving, just like its dangerous coastline. On the way back, our airship got stuck on a sandbar, and it took six hours before we were transferred one by one in the dark to another ship.
Snake Island is now a desolate place, strewn with wreckage, its few buildings turned into shells, and a half-submerged breakwater battered by the tide. It is a graveyard of expensive military equipment, full of unexploded ordnance and mines. This is not the place to be careless.
The CNN team saw at least four different types of mines, Russian Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems, and a Tor anti-aircraft missile system that was largely intact. There was also the wreckage of a Russian military helicopter that had been hit.
In a surreal scene, dozens of cats, probably descendants of the lighthouse pets of a more peaceful time, wondered among the wreckage.
Ukraine has a small military presence on the island as a monitoring mission. One of those squads is actually a Russian volunteer for the Ukrainian forces who goes by the nickname Fortune.
He lived with his family in Ukraine. “And here Russia is attacking us. If any other country had attacked us, we would have fought back too.
Now, according to him, the Russians are not attacking much, at least in this corner of Ukraine.
“Right now, the Russians are only doing airstrikes,” Fortuna told CNN. “So we can hear them coming. In addition, we have monitors around the perimeter and receive intelligence. So we are usually alerted to a potential attack.
Every now and then they will see a Russian warship in the distance.
“We have to be alert 24/7 so that we are never bored. There is always something to do,” says Fortūna.
Soldiers here cannot communicate with their families. Even when there is a signal, turning on the phone calls for a strike. The small boats used to transport supplies are often unable to make the trip, so the rotation here can be extended by the elements, sometimes up to a week.
Snake Island fell in the early days of the February invasion, when Ukraine fought Russian forces on several fronts. But before that, there was a demonstration of disobedience, which immediately became a meme of determined Ukrainian resistance.
When an approaching Russian ship was ordered to surrender, one of the small group there radioed: “Russian warship: go to hell.”
Those words were on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps and road signs.
One of the small group on the island told CNN that it was a pivotal moment in encouraging people to fight back and volunteer.
The man who led the operation to drive the Russians off the island after they occupied it for several months cannot reveal his real name. As a military intelligence officer, he goes by Shakespeare’s call sign.
“There are only four or five officers like me in Ukraine,” he told CNN. “If I give any details, everyone will recognize me.”
However, he detailed the plan to retake the island, which was successful by the end of June.
Much of the hard work was done in May, targeting exposed Russian positions. “It was all about choosing the right artillery and the combination of artillery,” Shakespeare said.
“The Russians made the mistake of estimating that we cannot reach them there. They thought we could only launch a few rocket launchers at them, so they installed anti-aircraft systems on the island. They were able to intercept our rockets, but we used complex strikes.
“They just lost manpower and a lot of expensive vehicles for nothing.” That was their main mistake.”
He said French-made CAESARS and Grad rocket launchers were used, although he was less favorable about the Ukrainian-made Bogdana howitzer, which has a range of 40 kilometers (25 miles).
“It was more breaking than shooting,” Shakespeare told CNN.
They had many challenges, especially since launching artillery over sea is no different than firing over land. “Conditions vary, making targeting difficult,” he added. Reconnaissance drones helped artillery fire more accurately.
The Ukrainians also used the Turkish-supplied Bayrakhtar drone until the Russians deployed electronic warfare and air defenses on the island.
However, the Russians had to transport equipment from Sevastopol in Crimea to defend the island. And this was their second mistake, said Shakespeare. It was a long and open supply line vulnerable to Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.
Shakespeare recalled the first landing at the end of June, when the Russian positions were beaten.
“It was a Special Operations Forces unit and Marine Corps minesweepers. Combat swimmers, divers. They tested mine water. Then others could access the island by boat.
They found an abandoned scrap metal.
“There was nobody there. . . . They left in a hurry, leaving ammunition and equipment behind.”
This included a largely intact Tor complex. “If they had had time they would have blown it,” added Shakespeare.
Besides the huge boost to Ukrainian morale, the recapture of Snake Island served a strategic purpose.
“The management of the Snake Island allows you to manage the mouth of the Danube. Without securing (the) island grain deal, signing would have been impossible,” Shakespeare said, referring to the UN-brokered grain initiative agreed in July that allowed Ukraine to resume exports via the Black Sea.
Our visit is necessarily short. Our hosts don’t want Russia to have time to plan anything, and the weather is getting worse. On a gray winter afternoon we are driven to our rendezvous with the sandbar.
But the secret of the island remains with you. It is believed to be the burial place of Achilles and was once a Greek temple. It was fought over by the Russian and Ottoman empires. Every rock and cave seems to hide a story.
Now a modern legend can be added to these tales.