Russia-Ukraine War: Ukraine tried, failed retaking Snake Island, says Russia

The Russian Defense Ministry accused Ukraine of trying to retake Snake Island in a "PR campaign" ahead of Victory Day but said it failed and cost them severely.

 A view shows fire on Zmiinyi (Snake) Island, Ukraine, in this screengrab taken from a drone video obtained by Reuters on May 8, 2022. (photo credit: Ukrainian Ground Forces/Handout via REUTERS)
A view shows fire on Zmiinyi (Snake) Island, Ukraine, in this screengrab taken from a drone video obtained by Reuters on May 8, 2022.
(photo credit: Ukrainian Ground Forces/Handout via REUTERS)

Russia claims it has stopped a Ukrainian "PR campaign" effort to retake Snake Island in the Black Sea ahead of Victory Day on May 9, noting that Russian forces have destroyed multiple Ukrainian drones in this effort.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Ukraine has so far lost 30 drones in the area around Snake Island over the past three days, including nine Bayraktar TB2 drones, one of which was shot down by Russian air defenses on Tuesday, according to the Defense Ministry statement.

The statement added that Ukraine has lost three Su-24 bombers, one Su-27 fighter jet, three armored amphibious assault boats, 10 helicopters and over 50 soldiers in this recent attempt at retaking the island.

These allegations have not been confirmed by Ukrainian media, though Kyiv has announced strikes in the area around Snake Island in recent days, including in the lead-up to Victory Day.

On Saturday, Ukraine claimed its Bayraktar TB2 drones successfully destroyed a Serna-class landing craft and two Raptor-class patrol boats, as well as damaging a third.

 An aerial view shows Ukrainian UAV Bayraktar targeting Russian landing craft vessel at Zmiinyi (Snake) Island, Ukraine, in this still image from a handout video released by Press service of Ukrainian Ground Forces on May 7, 2022.  (credit: Ukrainian Ground Forces/Handout via REUTERS) An aerial view shows Ukrainian UAV Bayraktar targeting Russian landing craft vessel at Zmiinyi (Snake) Island, Ukraine, in this still image from a handout video released by Press service of Ukrainian Ground Forces on May 7, 2022. (credit: Ukrainian Ground Forces/Handout via REUTERS)

The overall casualties from the strike in terms of manpower are estimated by Ukraine to be around 46 people. Also included among the casualties were two Tor surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, Ukrainian news outlet Pravda reported at the time.

Footage purportedly of the drone strike was shared by Ukraine's Defense Ministry, and further footage of what appears to be two Ukrainian Su-27 fighter jets targeting Russian facilities on Snake Island was shared online by the open-source intelligence Twitter account Ukraine Weapons Tracker, itself a project by arms research accounts Calibre Obscura and Armory Bazaar, and later shared by Pravda.

Why did Ukraine want to attack Snake Island, and why is Russia claiming it was a PR campaign related to Victory Day?

What is Victory Day?

Celebrated every year on May 9, Victory Day is an important holiday in Russia meant to commemorate the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, with this latest celebration being on the 77th anniversary. 

The politicized nature of the holiday has been noted by many experts worldwide, especially with its signature massive military parade that takes place in Moscow's Red Square.

This year, Russian President Vladimir Putin even used Victory Day as a platform for a speech to urge his forces to march towards victory in Ukraine, which Russia does not refer to as a war but rather as a "special military operation," and repeated his justifications for claiming NATO expansionism and battling "Nazi-inspired nationalists."

What is Snake Island?

Snake Island, also known as Zmiinyi Island, is a small island of just around 0.17 square kilometers with a very small population and just a single village.

Numerous historical events have happened on and around the island, such as the Battle of Fidonisi in 1788. It once housed an Axis radio station during World War II when it was under Romanian control.

Today, the island's major function is by playing a role in delimiting the exclusive economic zones of Romania and Ukraine. Indeed, many have called the island essential to Kyiv's maritime claims. However, it had served little in the way of military function.

Then, on February 24, the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, two Russian ships, led by the Moskva, began to attack the island. The Moskva had asked the 13 Ukrainian border guards on the island, the only military presence there, to surrender.

However, the soldiers replied with, "Russian warship, go f*** yourself." Subsequently, the ships opened fire. Ultimately, the island was captured and the guards were assumed dead — though they were later confirmed to be alive and taken as prisoners of war before being released.

That moment has become a major rallying cry for Ukraine amid the ongoing invasion, with the country even selling commemorative stamps of the event and the reply. 

Clashes have also continued around the island, with one reportedly even resulting in the sinking of the Moskva itself.

On Friday, a Russian frigate, the Admiral Makarov, was reportedly set ablaze near Snake Island after being struck by a Ukrainian-made Neptune missile.

"Snake Island became a symbol of the strong rock of our steadfastness and the defeat of the most persistent efforts of the enemy," the Southern Operational Command said on Sunday following the Saturday drone strike.

Michael Starr and Reuters contributed to this report.