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.
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.
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.”
Occasionally they will see a Russian warship in the distance.
“We need to be on guard 24/7 so we never get bored. There is always something to get busy with,” Fortuna says.
The troops here can’t communicate with their families. Even when there is a signal, turning on your phone invites a strike. The small boats used to ferry supplies are often unable to make the trip, so a rotation here can get extended by the elements, sometimes for a week.
An emblem of resistance
Snake Island fell in the first few days of the invasion in February, as Ukraine struggled on multiple fronts against Russian forces. But before it did, there was a show of defiance that immediately became a meme for Ukraine’s determined resistance.
Ordered to surrender by an approaching Russian vessel, one of the small detachment there responded by radio: “Russian warship: Go f*** yourself.”
Those words were echoed on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps and road signs.
One of the small detachment on the island told CNN it was a pivotal moment, encouraging people to fight and volunteer.
The man who led the operation to expel the Russians from the island, after they occupied it for several months, cannot reveal his real name. As an officer in military intelligence he goes by the call-sign Shakespeare.
“There are just four or five officers like me in Ukraine,” he told CNN. “if I give any details, everybody will recognize me.”
But he did provide a detailed account of the plan to retake the island, which was successful by the end of June.
Much of the hard work was done in May, when exposed Russian positions were targeted. “It was all about choosing the right kind of artillery and combination of artillery,” Shakespeare said.
“The Russians made a mistake in estimating we cannot reach them there. They thought we could only fire multiple rocket launchers at them, so they installed anti-air systems on the island. They were able to intercept our rockets, but we used complex strikes.”
“They just lost manpower and lots of expensive vehicles for nothing. This was their main mistake.”
French-made CAESARS as well as Grad rocket launchers were used, he said, though he was less complimentary about the Ukrainian-developed Bogdana howitzer, which has a range of 40 kilometers (25 miles).
“It was breaking more than firing,” Shakespeare told CNN.
They were plenty of challenges, particularly as launching artillery across the sea is nothing like firing it across land. “Different conditions, so aiming is complicated,” he added. Reconnaissance drones helped make the artillery fire more accurate.
The Ukrainians also used the Turkish-supplied Bayrakhtar drone before the Russians introduced electronic warfare measures and air defenses on the island.
But the Russians had to ship equipment from Sevastopol in Crimea to defend the island. And that was their second mistake, Shakespeare said. This was a long and exposed supply line vulnerable to Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.
Shakespeare recalled the initial landing at the end of June, after Russian positions had been pummeled.
“It was a unit from Special Ops Forces and deminers from the marine corps. Combat swimmers, divers. They checked water for the mines. Then others could approach the island on the vessels.”
What they found was a deserted scrap yard.
“There was nobody there … They left in a hurry leaving behind ammunition and equipment.”
That included the nearly intact Tor complex. “If they’d had the time, they would have blown it up,” Shakespeare added.
Besides the huge boost to Ukrainian morale, the recapture of Snake Island had a strategic purpose.
“Controlling Snake Island allows you to control the mouth of Danube. Without securing (the) island signing the grain deal would have been impossible,” Shakespeare said, referring to the UN-brokered grain initiative agreed in July that allowed Ukraine to restart exports through the Black Sea.
Our visit is necessarily brief. Our hosts don’t want Russia to have the time to plan something and the weather is deteriorating. In the slate-gray of the winter afternoon we are whisked away for our rendezvous with the sandbar.
But the mystery of the island stays with you. It is reputed to be the burial place of Achilles and once had a Greek temple. It was fought over by the Russian and Ottoman empires. It seems that every crag and cave hides a story.
Now there is a modern legend to add to those fables.