Snake Island, Ukraine
Snake Island occupies more than ever a special place in Ukrainian folklore. Its defiant defense – when a Russian warship was famously ordered to “fuck you” – and then its reconquest rallied a nation in the early months of the conflict with Russia, shattering the myth of the invaders’ superiority .
Now, whipped by winter winds, it remains firmly in the hands of Ukrainians – a piece of rock that has both symbolic and strategic significance.
A CNN team has become the first foreign media to visit the island since its recapture in June and speak with the commander of the operation that led to its release.
A few acres of rock and grass, treeless and difficult to access, Snake Island, also known as Zmiinyi Island, lies about 30 miles (48 kilometers) off the coast of Ukraine, near of its maritime border with Romania.
Getting there proved difficult: an hour of hopping from wave to wave in a small boat, drenched in sea spray, in sub-zero temperatures. The Black Sea can be unforgiving, as can 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, to another ship in the dark.
Snake Island is now a desolate place, strewn with wreckage, its few buildings reduced to shells, its half-sunken pier battered by the tide. It’s a graveyard for expensive military equipment – and is littered with unexploded ordnance and mines. This is no place to be careless.
The CNN team saw at least four different types of landmines, Russian Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems and a nearly intact Tor anti-aircraft missile complex. There was also the wreckage of a Russian military helicopter that was hit.
Wondering among the wreckage, in a surreal scene, were dozens of cats, likely descendants of the lighthouse’s pets from more peaceful times.
Ukraine maintains a small military presence on the island as an observer mission. One of these detachments is actually Russian, a volunteer from the Ukrainian forces who uses the call sign Fortuna.
He lived with his family in Ukraine. “And now Russia is attacking us. If another country had attacked us, we would fight too.
These days, he says, the Russians don’t attack much, at least in this corner of Ukraine.
“At this point the Russians are only carrying out airstrikes,” Fortuna told CNN. “So we can hear them coming. In addition, we have observers all along the perimeter and we receive intelligence. So usually we are warned of a possible attack.
Every now and then they will see a Russian warship in the distance.
“We have to be on our toes 24/7 so we never get bored. There is always something to do,” says Fortuna.
The soldiers here cannot communicate with their families. Even when there is a signal, turning on your phone invites a strike. The small boats used to transport supplies are often unable to make the trip, so a rotation here can be prolonged by the elements, sometimes for a week.
Snake Island fell in the early days of the invasion in February, as Ukraine struggled on multiple fronts against Russian forces. But before that, there was a show of defiance that immediately became a meme of Ukraine’s determined resistance.
Ordered to surrender by an approaching Russian ship, one of the small detachments radioed, “Russian warship: fuck you.”
These words have been featured on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps and street signs.
One of the small detachments on the island told CNN it was a pivotal moment, encouraging people to fight and volunteer.
The man who led the operation to expel the Russians from the island, after they occupied it for several months, cannot reveal his real name. As a military intelligence officer, he uses the call sign Shakespeare.
“There are only four or five officers like me in Ukraine,” he told CNN. “If I give details, everyone will recognize me.”
But he provided a detailed account of the island’s takeover plan, which was successful in late June.
Much of the hard work was done in May, when exposed Russian positions were targeted. “It was about choosing the right type of artillery and the right combination of artillery,” Shakespeare said.
“The Russians made a mistake in believing that we cannot reach them there. They thought that we could only fire several 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 wasted manpower and a lot of expensive vehicles for nothing. This was their main mistake.
French-made CAESARS as well as Grad rocket launchers were used, he said, although he was less complimentary about the Ukrainian-developed Bogdana howitzer, which has a range of 40 kilometers (25 miles).
“It was breaking more than it was pulling,” Shakespeare told CNN.
They presented many challenges, especially since throwing artillery across the sea has nothing to do with shooting across land. “Different conditions, so aiming is complicated,” he added. Reconnaissance drones helped make artillery fire more accurate.
The Ukrainians also used the Bayrakhtar drone supplied by Turkey before the Russians introduced electronic warfare measures and air defenses on the island.
But the Russians had to ship equipment from Sevastopol to Crimea to defend the island. And that was their second mistake, says Shakespeare. This was a long and exposed supply line vulnerable to Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.
Shakespeare recalled the initial landing in late June, after the Russian positions had been beaten.
“It was a unit of special operations forces and marine corps deminers. Combat swimmers, divers. They checked the water for mines. Then others could approach the island on the boats.
What they found was an abandoned junkyard.
“There was no one there… They left in a hurry leaving behind ammunition and equipment.”
This included the nearly intact Tor complex. “If they had had time, they would have blown it up,” Shakespeare added.
Besides the huge boost in Ukrainian morale, the recapture of Snake Island had a strategic purpose.
“Control of Snake Island allows you to control the mouth of the Danube. Without securing (the island) the signing of the grain agreement would have been impossible,” Shakespeare said, referring to the grain initiative brokered by the UN and agreed in July which allowed Ukraine to restart its exports via the Black Sea.
Our visit is necessarily brief. Our hosts don’t want Russia to have time to plan something and the weather is getting worse. In the slate gray of a winter afternoon, we are taken to our rendezvous with the sandbar.
But the mystery of the island stays with you. It is reputed to be the burial place of Achilles and once had a Greek temple. It was disputed by the Russian and Ottoman empires. It seems that every rock and cave hides a story.
There is now a modern legend to add to these fables.