Snake Island, Ukraine CNN  — 

Snake Island has a special place in Ukraine’s folklore, now more than ever. Its defiant defense – when a Russian warship was famously told to “go f*** yourself” – and then reconquest rallied a nation in the early months of the conflict with Russia, puncturing the myth of the invaders’ superiority.

Now, whipped by winter winds, it remains firmly in Ukrainian hands – a speck of rock that has both symbolic and strategic significance.

A CNN team became the first foreign media to visit the island since it was recaptured in June, and to speak with the commander of the operation that led to its liberation.

A few acres of rock and grass, treeless and difficult to access, Snake Island, also known as Zmiinyi Island, lies around 30 miles (48 kilometers) off the Ukrainian coast, near its maritime border with Romania.

Getting there proved challenging: An hour being pitched from wave to wave in a small boat, showered with spray, in sub-freezing temperatures. The Black Sea can be unforgiving, and so can its hazardous coastline. On the way back our dirigible boat got stuck on a sandbar, and it took six hours before we were transferred, one-by-one, to another vessel in the darkness.

The scenes of wreckage on Snake Island.

Snake Island is now a desolate place, strewn with wreckage, its few buildings reduced to shells, its half-sunken jetty battered by the tide. It’s a graveyard of expensive military hardware – and is littered with unexploded ordnance and mines. This is not a place to be careless.

The CNN team saw at least four different kinds of landmines, Russian Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems, and an almost intact Tor anti-air missile complex. There was also the carcass of a Russian military helicopter that was hit.

Wondering among the wreckage, in a surreal scene, were dozens of cats, probably the descendants of the lighthouse pets from a more peaceful time.

Numerous cats, likely  former lighthouse pets, roam around the rocky terrain.
A Russian "Tor" missile system on the island. Russians troops disabled it before leaving.

Ukraine keeps a small military presence on the island as an observation mission. One of that detachment is actually Russian, a volunteer with the Ukrainian forces who goes by the call-sign Fortuna.

He’d been living with his family in Ukraine. “And here comes Russia attacking us. If some other country had attacked us we’d fight too.”

Nowadays, he says, the Russians aren’t doing much attacking, at least in this corner of Ukraine.

“At this stage the Russians only perform air strikes,” Fortuna told CNN. “So we can hear them coming. Plus we have observers all along the perimeter and we receive intelligence. So usually we are warned about a possible attack.”