The Russian Defense Ministry announced the withdrawal of troops from the Black Sea island of Zmeiny, which was taken under control on the first day of the special operation in Ukraine. What is the strategic importance of the island and why they did not keep it – in the material of RBC jpg” alt=”What does Russia's departure from Zmeiny Island mean” />
View of Zmeiny Island
Why Zmeiny is important
Before the start of Russia's military special operation in Ukraine, few people knew about the rocky island of Serpents with an area of 20.5 hectares and with a population of less than a hundred people located in the Black Sea near Odessa. However, after February 25, when the Russian military announced the capture of the island, the situation changed. The New York Times explained that Serpentine is crucial in terms of control of the northwestern Black Sea. Ukrainian military expert Oleg Zhdanov, in an interview with the BBC, said that if Russian troops manage to occupy the island and deploy their long-range air defense systems there, then “they will control the sea, land and air in the northwestern part of the Black Sea and on south of Ukraine».
The French TV channel France 24 emphasized that Serpentine has acquired a symbolic meaning for both sides of the conflict. Because of its proximity to Odessa, the island is often called the gateway to its port, said Jeff Hone, a freelance researcher at the New Lines Institute, US geopolitical research center. Thus, Serpentine could be vital to averting a full-blown global food crisis, given that in the old days Ukraine exported about 4.5 million tons of food through Odessa every month, concluded Hawn.
< p>Yuri Shvytkin, Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee, in an interview with Lenta.ru emphasized that if the island was under the control of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, they could use American anti-ship systems in the direction of the Crimean peninsula. “Secondly, not a single ship— here we are talking about Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, etc.— will not pass by Snake Island. This sea route is under the control of those forces that are located on the island,— concluded the deputy.
How the sides fought for Serpentine
On the night of February 25, 2022, the Ukrainian authorities reported that all the defenders of the island were killed and they would be posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine. However, the representative of the Russian Ministry of Defense, Igor Konashenkov, said that 82 servicemen of the island garrison surrendered and gave a signature refusing to participate in hostilities. Later, the Armed Forces of Ukraine admitted that the military, previously declared dead, were in Russian captivity. Subsequently, they were exchanged for captured Russians.
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The flagship of the Black Sea Fleet participated in the operation to capture the Serpentine— cruiser “Moskva”. On April 14, it became known that he sank after a fire on board. The Russian Ministry of Defense reported that ammunition had detonated on the ship.
After the capture of Zmeinoye, the Russian army began to create an air defense center on the island. In particular, it is known about one air defense system “Pantsir-SM” located on the island. and two Tor-M2U complexes. In parallel, the Armed Forces of Ukraine began to prepare for a counterattack.
On May 10, Konashenkov reported that the attempt to seize the island resulted in the death of more than 50 Ukrainian soldiers and “ended in disaster for Ukraine.” On May 12, the Russian military shot down a drone over the island and intercepted three Ukrainian Tochka-U ballistic missiles. Similar messages came throughout May and three weeks of June.
On June 20, Ukrainian forces attacked Zmeiny again. The Russian Ministry of Defense stated that the Armed Forces of Ukraine hit the island with ballistic missiles “Tochka-U”, MLRS “Hurricane” and fired from US-supplied M777 howitzers from positions near Odessa and on Kubansky Island. The air raid involved 15 attack and reconnaissance drones, whose actions were coordinated with the help of two Turkish Bayraktars. According to Konashenkov, a US Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone was also seen over the island, and Ukrainian forces provided drone cover with S-300 systems from positions in the Tuzla and Ochakov regions.
The American company Maxar Technologies, specializing in in satellite manufacturing and related services, released satellite imagery of Snake Island on June 17 and 21. These shots were also shown by CNN. They show large areas of scorched earth and a ruined tower, the channel reported.
On June 22, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the Ukrainian military had once again unsuccessfully tried to seize Snake Island. The attack was again carried out from firing positions located near Odessa and on Kubansky Island.
Why Moscow decided to leave the island
On the morning of Thursday, June 30, official Kyiv announced the withdrawal of Russian troops from Serpentine. Soon the Russian Defense Ministry announced the withdrawal of troops from the island. The Russian military, having completed the tasks at Zmein, as a “goodwill step” the garrison stationed there was withdrawn, the ministry said. With this step, Russia showed the world community that “it does not interfere with the efforts of the UN to organize a humanitarian corridor” on the export of grain from Ukraine, the Russian military department said in a statement. “This decision will not allow Kyiv to speculate on the topic of an impending food crisis, referring to the impossibility of exporting grain due to Russia's total control of the northwestern part of the Black Sea,” it also says.
From a purely military point of view, the decision to withdraw troops from Serpentine seems to be correct— the island turned out to be easier to capture than to hold, said Vasily Kashin, director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, an expert of the Russian Council on International Affairs, in a conversation with RBC. At the same time, the statement about the “gesture of good will” sounded “extremely strange,” says Kashin.
Serpentine is a flat rock; to prepare it for defense, you need to spend several months creating long-term fortifications, the expert explains. It was only possible to hold the island until the Ukrainian side had enough long-range artillery, Kashin continues. The island is located 35 km from the coast— NATO 155-mm howitzers received by Ukraine are finishing it off, the expert explained. “Shoot down with missiles of the Pantsir anti-aircraft missile system” each incoming MLRS missile, and even more so each incoming projectile from a long-range gun is impossible, this requires a huge number of missiles, — he noted.
The significance of holding the island was mainly political, because it is possible to block the use of Ukrainian ports without control over this island, Kashin believes. It is also not known about any long-range missile systems deployed on Zmeiny, the expert added. “He was important from a political point of view, especially after the Ukrainian propaganda invented a well-known myth about his heroic defense and the death of defenders on the very first day of the war. In addition, one of the goals was to divert Ukrainian forces to try to capture it,»— Kashin said.
Sim Tak, an analyst at the American military consulting company Force Analysis, also believes that the strategic value of Zmeiny is overestimated: “The military equipment stationed there is mainly designed for defense and has a very limited range,” he said.
On the other hand, when the Ukrainians occupy the island, they will be in an even worse position because they do not have advanced air defense systems, Kashin stressed. “And now the Russian side will be able to periodically launch various missile and air strikes on the island, which will be quite difficult to fend off,” — he concluded.
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