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Russian forces withdraw from Ukraine’s Snake Island

Russian forces withdrew from Snake Island on June 30, marking a symbolic and strategic win for Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)
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RIGA, Latvia — Russian forces say they have withdrawn from Ukraine’s Snake Island, a highly contested speck of land in the Black Sea they captured shortly after the start of the war — presenting a small but strategic win for Ukraine on Thursday.

Their retreat provided a welcomed morale boost for Ukraine as it continues a bloody and grinding fight in the east, where artillery exchanges and shifting control of vital terrain has produced few recent victories.

On Thursday, President Biden said at a NATO meeting in Madrid that the United States would commit another $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine, adding to the billions provided by the U.S. and European allies and signaling what analysts believe will be a sustained conflict. Biden also announced an increase of the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe, though some of that movement was under consideration months and years before the invasion.

The alliance will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” Biden said, vowing to “defend every inch of NATO territory.” Before the war, he had warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that an invasion of Ukraine would only make NATO stronger. “That’s exactly what we are seeing today,” he said.

Russia’s Defense Ministry framed the withdrawal from Snake Island as a “gesture of goodwill” and an effort to create a humanitarian corridor for the export of agricultural products such as grain from Ukraine. However, officials in the nearby southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa said Russian troops had evacuated only after protracted missile and artillery strikes by Ukrainian forces.

Snake Island, also known as Zmiinyi Island, is about 25 miles off the southern coast and is a critical outpost for controlling shipping lanes for the export of Ukrainian grain and accessing the key port of Odessa.

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

“On June 30, as a gesture of goodwill, the Russian Armed Forces completed their assigned tasks on Snake Island and withdrew the garrison stationed there,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.

“[We] demonstrated to the world community that the Russian Federation does not interfere with the efforts of the U.N. to organize a humanitarian corridor for the export of agricultural products from the territory of Ukraine.”

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The Russian military has previously described withdrawals from Kyiv and other parts of Central Ukraine as “gestures of goodwill” after facing fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces and suffering major losses.

The Defense Ministry added in its statement Thursday that “now it is up to Ukraine” to clear its ports of mines and resume grain shipments.

The war has cut vital shipping lanes, leaving tons of Ukraine’s agricultural goods stranded in silos. Western leaders accused Moscow of holding food-insecure countries “hostage” by disrupting supplies and contributing to global hunger.

Moscow responded by saying it would not prevent grain shipments or use the removal of mines from ports as an opportunity to renew an attack on Odessa, but Ukrainian officials have been wary of such assurances.

Western analysts called Russia’s expulsion from Snake Island a symbolic as well as strategic victory for Kyiv. For Russian forces, said Mason Clark at the Institute for the Study of War, it was “an important defeat.” The Kremlin, he noted, needed the island “to threaten the sea route to Odesa along the Romanian coast, which is the safest way for ships to skirt the Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain and other exports.”

Yet Jeffrey Edmonds a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a Virginia-based think tank, said that while losing Snake Island has removed some Russian capabilities from the equation, its navy can still threaten trade with warships and submarines.

“Militarily, it has weakened the blockade,” he said, “but it’s not essential to the blockade.”

Covering just 0.06 square miles, Snake Island made headlines in the early days of the war when the crew of a Russian warship ordered a small team of Ukrainian border guards there to surrender or face attack. The Ukrainians responded with a profane insult, prompting the Russians to open fire.

The resisters were initially thought to have been killed but later were said to have been taken prisoner. Their defiance has been celebrated across Ukraine on stamps and posters and hailed as a rallying moment in the defense of their country.

Ukraine’s armed forces confirmed the Russian withdrawal on their Facebook page Thursday and thanked fighters in nearby Odessa for helping to reclaim the “strategically important” territory.

“KABOOM! No Russian troops on the Snake Island anymore. Our Armed Forces did a great job,” Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, tweeted.

The Ukrainian military has recently been on a renewed mission to retake the island and launched multiple attacks against Russian forces there.

Last week, Ukraine’s southern operational command said it had used “aimed strikes with the use of various forces” on Snake Island, causing “significant losses” among Russian troops and the destruction of Russian air defense systems, radars and vehicles.

The announcement of the Russian withdrawal came just a few days after Moscow boasted that it repelled Ukraine’s attacks by destroying over a dozen drones and 21 incoming missiles. The Washington Post could not independently verify those claims.

Ukraine’s success in the push for Snake Island is partially attributed to new weapons supplies by the West. British intelligence assessed that, using donated Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Ukraine “almost certainly” managed to sink the Russian naval tugboat Spasatel Vasily Bekh, which had been delivering Russian weapons and personnel to Snake Island.

Pro-Russian war reporters and bloggers also have linked the reinforcement of Ukraine’s fighting capabilities to the French artillery system CAESAR, stationed in Odessa, as one of the reasons for the withdrawal, signaling a win for Kyiv and its Western allies. CAESAR has a firing range of about 26 miles.

“After the transfer of French self-propelled howitzers CAESAR and [tactical missiles] Tochka-U to the Odessa region, the density of artillery fire from the Odessa region increased manifold,” a popular Telegram blogger known as Rybar wrote Thursday.

In pro-Kremlin outlets, Russia’s withdrawal from the island was described as a setback for Moscow but also as a move necessary to save the lives of Russian soldiers.

Meanwhile, NATO leaders are meeting in Madrid on Thursday for a third and final day. President Biden announced at the gathering Wednesday that the United States would increase its military presence on NATO territory in Europe, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The new deployments will include a permanent headquarters for the U.S. 5th Army Corps in Poland.

Suliman reported from London. David Walker in Britain and Claire Parker and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.

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