Ukraine-Russia War: Why is Snake Island so important? - explainer

Despite lacking much in the way of natural resources or a traditional military presence until now, the island does have great strategic importance for both Ukraine and Russia.

 A satellite image shows an overview of Snake Island and Russian Ropucha ship, March 13, 2022.  (photo credit: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS)
A satellite image shows an overview of Snake Island and Russian Ropucha ship, March 13, 2022.
(photo credit: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS)

The small Black Sea island known as Snake Island has been hotly contested by Ukraine and Russia throughout the ongoing Russian invasion, but why is it so important? 

Despite lacking much in the way of natural resources or a traditional military presence — until now, the island does have great strategic importance for both Ukraine and Russia, and it is part of the reason why the fighting for the island is still ongoing.

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.

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

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.

Snake Island during the war

Fighting over the island began the very same day the war itself did.

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.

The island's importance for morale

In part, Snake Island has become symbolic of Ukrainian defiance and resistance against Russia. As such, the island holds great value for morale.

This is something Ukraine itself has noted.

"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 following a drone strike last week.

Russia has also recognized this symbolic value it has for Ukraine, and has accused Ukraine of attempting a "PR campaign" effort to retake the island

But the value of Snake Island goes beyond symbolism.

Russian missile cruiser Moskva is moored in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Ukraine, May 10, 2013. (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER/FILE PHOTO)Russian missile cruiser Moskva is moored in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Ukraine, May 10, 2013. (credit: REUTERS/STRINGER/FILE PHOTO)
Strategic value of Snake Island

It isn't for just symbolism that Ukraine has kept striking targets on the island, just as Russia isn't continuously defending the island and fortifying their position there for no reason.

The island's location in the Black Sea makes it possible to control the water and even impact the skies over southern Ukraine. 

As noted in a recent report by the think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Russia is using Snake Island to try and hamper Ukrainian maritime communications in the area, especially around the major port city of Odesa.

In addition, in a new report released by the Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate (GUR), it was also noted that Snake Island is essential for Russia's ability for a tactical naval landing. 

According to GUR chief Maj.-Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Snake Island is, in theory, the only way for Russia to possibly conduct a landing operation in Transnistria, the pro-Russia breakaway region of Moldova.

The idea of forming a land corridor connecting Transnistria with Crimea, Donbas and Russia is something that was hypothesized by intelligence reports throughout the war to be one of Russia's main objectives.

In addition, it has long been feared by many in Ukraine that Russia could use Transnistria as a launching point for a new offensive against Ukraine, this time attacking from the West.

This all underscores the importance of Snake Island as being the key to doing so — especially with Ukrainian resistance slowing Russia's ground advance in the South.

This is in addition to the island's ability to essentially control the seas south of Ukraine.

"Anyone who controls the island can block the movement of civilian ships in all directions south of Ukraine at any time," Budanov said. "This is a strategically important point to open trade routes, import weapons and exclude any possible Russian military action in Transnistria, from where they can attack the western part of Ukraine."

It is for this reason, he noted, that "We will fight for [Snake Island] for as long as it takes."