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On Ukraine’s Snake Island, a defiant last stand against Russian forces

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a news briefing in Kyiv on Feb. 25. (AFP/Getty Images)
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As the Russian military pounded targets across Ukraine with an array of bombs and missiles, a small team of Ukrainian border guards on a rocky, desolate island received an ominous message: Give up or be attacked.

“I am a Russian warship,” a voice from the invaders said, according to a recording of the communications. “I ask you to lay down your arms and surrender to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary deaths. Otherwise, you will be bombed.”

The Ukrainians responded boldly.

“Russian warship,” came the reply, “go f--- yourself.”

The Russians opened fire, eventually killing 13 border guards.

SNAKE

ISLAND

Black

Sea

500 FEET

RUSSIA

Kyiv

UKRAINE

ROM.

Snake

Island

Crimea

BULG.

Annexed by

Russia in

2014

TURKEY

Source: Maxar via Google Earth

THE WASHINGTON POST

SNAKE

ISLAND

Black

Sea

RUSSIA

Kyiv

UKRAINE

ROM.

Crimea

Snake

Island

BULG.

Annexed by

Russia in

2014

500 FEET

TURKEY

Source: Maxar via Google Earth

THE WASHINGTON POST

SNAKE

ISLAND

Black

Sea

RUSSIA

Kyiv

UKRAINE

ROM.

Snake

Island

Crimea

BULG.

500 FEET

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

TURKEY

THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: Maxar via Google Earth

News of the defiant last stand on the Black Sea went viral Thursday, highlighting the grim decisions that Ukrainians have faced during the largest attack on a European nation since World War II. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hours later announced the deaths and said that the island’s defenders will be bestowed with the title “Hero of Ukraine,” the highest honorific the Ukrainian leader can award.

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A copy of the recording was posted on the website of the Ukrainian news outlet Ukrayinska Pravda, and a Ukrainian official confirmed its authenticity to The Washington Post. A separate recording, posted on TikTok, shows what appears to be a border guard in a helmet and balaclava on the atoll, also known as Zmiinyi Island, or Snake Island, cursing after coming under fire. His profile lists him as a 23-year-old from Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea.

Stories of resistance amid bloodshed came from all over Ukraine. Zelensky, speaking at a news conference, said the border guards had attempted to protect the island for much of Thursday before they were killed. At least 137 Ukrainians were killed in less than a day of fighting, with operations continuing, he said.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the operations candidly, acknowledged hearing about the attack on Snake Island on Friday and described the exchange as “both gut-wrenching and inspiring.”

“It’s certainly reflective of what we have seen in the last 24 hours, which is the Ukrainians being willing to fight for their country, and do so bravely,” the official said.

News of the clash sparked admiration on social media.

“Defiance!!!” tweeted Florent Groberg, an Army veteran who earned the Medal of Honor for valor in Afghanistan. “These Ukrainian patriots should never be forgotten. Few understand what true courage is … this is it #StandWithUkraine.”

“What does it say about Ukraine that they have men and women that would not surrender to an overwhelming force,” tweeted Rep. Ruben Gallego (D.-Ariz.), a Marine Corps veteran. “Ukraine is a country that wants to be independent.”

Gallego echoed the final defiant statement of the border guards along, posting a middle finger emoji.

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While isolated, the 42-acre island marks the edge of Ukraine’s territorial waters, giving it a strategic role within the Black Sea by connecting a shipping corridor to the Ukrainian cities of Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kherson.

The sparsely populated island has changed hands numerous times over the past century, serving as a military outpost for radar and other equipment.

After World War I, the island was seized by Romania. The Soviet Union took control of it after World War II, leading to the construction of a lighthouse and military base, according to a history of the dispute published at Queen’s University in Canada.

The island became Ukraine’s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, though Romania continued to dispute ownership. An international court ultimately left Ukraine in control of the island and Romania with possession of much of the surrounding waters.

Dalton Bennett and María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.

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