Russian troops have left Snake Island in the Black Sea, the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Thursday, after they carried out what they said was a “successful” operation.
The small but strategic territory was the scene of one of the opening salvos of the war in Ukraine, with demands from a Russian warship calling for the Ukrainian defenders to surrender, who boldly replied with “Russian warship, go f*** yourself.”
Known as Zmiinyi Ostriv in Ukrainian, Snake Island lies around 30 miles (48 kilometers) off the coast of Ukraine and is close to the sea lanes leading to the Bosphorus and Mediterranean.
Moscow had never laid claim to Snake Island before this year, and it’s a long way from any part of the Russian mainland. It’s more than 180 miles from Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, and so there is no geographical or historical basis for Russia to claim it now.
On Monday, the Ukrainian military said it hit a second missile system on the island, as well as multiple Russian personnel in their efforts to keep them at bay.
In a short post on Telegram on Thursday the Operation Command South of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said that “the enemy hastily evacuated the remnants of the garrison in two speedboats and probably left the island.”
Satellite images of the island taken on Thursday by Maxar Technologies showed that Russian military forces have left the island.
Andriy Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said in a Telegram post that Ukraine’s armed forces had “conducted a remarkable operation.”
The Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valeriy Zaluzhniy, later said on Telegram that the “occupiers” had left after being “unable to withstand the fire of our artillery, missile and air strikes.”
He paid tribute to those behind the manufacturing of the Ukrainian self-propelled howitzer ‘Bodogan,’ saying it “played an important role in the liberation of the island,” and said “Thanks to foreign partners for the provided means of destruction.”
Zaluzhniy also thanked the Ukrainian Armed Forces from the Odesa region, which Snake Island is a part of, “who took the maximum measures to liberate a strategically important part of our territory.”
Ukraine’s armed forces had “achieved their goal” in driving Russian troops from Snake Island, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Military’s Southern Command, Natalia Humenyuk, said, but she cautioned it may be “too early” to establish an outpost there.
“We can state that a powerful rocket artillery assault that we have been conducting for some time, during the entire military operation, on this small enemy outpost has achieved its goal. They truly understood that they have to do the right thing, gathered their things and got out as soon as they could,” Humenyuk told Ukrainian broadcaster Espresso TV.
Humenyuk reported the island remains engulfed in heavy smoke as explosions continue. Although the Ukrainian military saw Russian troops evacuate using speedboats, Humenyuk said investigation needs to take place into possible “diversion tools left behind” before claiming back the island.
“Our forces haven’t landed on the island yet,” she added, clarifying it is not clear if Russian troops had withdrawn completely.
Humenyuk suggested the Russian military set anti-air missile systems and radar station on fire “to cover their tracks.”
“As soon as they understood all these systems were being targeted by us effectively and could not serve them anymore, they realized they had to fold their outpost and get out,” Humenyuk added.
However, Russia gave a slightly different narrative of the events on the island.
Russian army spokesman Igor Konashenkov said at a briefing that its forces left the island “as a gesture of goodwill.”
He added that “the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation finished fulfilling the assigned tasks in Snake Island and withdrew the garrison that had been operating there.”
Konashenkov intimated that the removal of Russian troops should allow an easing for the passage of grain, “this solution will prevent Kyiv from speculating on an impending grocery crisis citing the inability to export grain due to total control of the northwestern part of the Black Sea by Russia.”
But the Ukrainian government rejected Russia’s version of events, with Yermak denouncing the explanation.
“In Russia, they say about the alleged withdrawal of troops from Snake Island and present it as a ‘gesture of goodwill.’ Like, Russia does not interfere with humanitarian corridors for the export of Ukrainian grain. But all this is a complete fake,” Yermak said on his official Telegram channel.
“First, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have knocked the Russians out of Snake Island,” Yermak added. “Secondly, the Russians are shelling warehouses with our grain. In the morning, a warehouse in the Dnipropetrovsk region was fired upon.”
Snake Island is part of the Odesa region, through which much of Ukraine’s agricultural wealth travels to global markets. In normal times, Ukraine would export around three-quarters of the grain it produces. According to data from the European Commission, about 90% of these exports were shipped by sea, from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, said in May that whoever holds Snake Island controls “the surface and to some extent the air situation in southern Ukraine.”
“Whoever controls the island can block the movement of civilian vessels in all directions to the south of Ukraine at any time,” Budanov added.
Last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky flew to Snake Island, where there are no voters but some sheep, to emphasize that it mattered. “This island, like the rest of our territory, is Ukrainian land, and we will defend it with all our might,” he said.
CNN’s Jeevan Ravindran, Ivana Kottasová, Paul P. Murphy and Anastasia Graham-Yooll contributed to this report.