After 11 weeks of fighting, Russia and Ukraine are now focused on their fierce battle over Snake Island – a strategically important and iconic site in the Black Sea.
Snake Island – the area that the Russian Navy took over in the first week of the military operation, has now become a new battleground after Ukrainian army begins a counter-offensive operation. The Russian Defense Ministry said that Ukraine suffered a heavy defeat when attempting to retake the island.
And Kyiv insists it is limiting the operation to only key facilities on the island and Russian ships. For the Ukrainian military, control of Snake Island could help them once again take control of the waters and airspace near Odessa to step up a counterattack against the Russian armed forces.
The British Defense Ministry’s intelligence agency said the battle was not over and Russia was trying to strengthen its forces there.
Snake Island, also known as Zmiinyi Island, is about 48 km from the southernmost tip of Ukraine and about 300 km from the Crimea peninsula, with an area of only 0.17 km2 with a population of about 100 people. But it is described as having a strategic location in the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s military expert Oleh Zhdanov noted: “If the Russian military succeeds in consolidating control of this island and establishing a long-range air defense system, they will control the sea, land, and airspace in the Northwest of the Black Sea and in the South of Ukraine”.
Analysts point out that for the Russian military, gaining control of Snake Island will make it possible for them to land Odessa from the south, and in case of failure to deal with the Ukrainian counter-offensive, they can withdraw to the Black Sea area to conduct sea operations.
This is why Russia deployed the guided-missile cruiser Moskva to the island immediately, just a few hours after launching the military operation. Although Russia controlled Snake Island, it also suffered great damage when its black sea flagship Moskva sank. The loss of the Moskva left Russian supply ships to the island with minimal protection.
According to expert Oleh Zhdanov, Russia’s attempt to strengthen its military presence on Snake Island could create a “catastrophe” for Ukraine, strategically as well as economically. Ukraine had to close the seaport in Odessa, halting grain exports after Russia took control of the island.
Mr. Zhdanov fears Snake Island could be used by Russia as a second front line. “If the Russians succeed in installing long-range air defense systems, they will be able to protect their squadron and reach the coast of Ukraine.” Not only that, but Snake Island is also key to helping Russia control the situation in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region, located not far from the Ukrainian city of Odessa.
Russia’s presence on this island also makes NATO “stand still” because Snake Island is about 45km from the coast of Romania – a member of NATO. British naval analyst Jonathan Bentham believes that Russia’s S-400 air defense system will be a “game-changing weapon” if Russia deployed in Snake island.
Romania’s historian Dorin Dobrincu said that if Russia deployed this missile system on Snake Island, not only Odessa but also the southern flank of NATO would be threatened.
“It is of concern not only to the Romanian government and people, but also to the entire alliance. Russia has the ability to destroy cities and military capabilities in our eastern territory.”
The “key” to controlling the Black Sea
Since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict broke out, NATO has deployed French and Belgian forces to strengthen Romania’s border protection. However, Romania can still bear major economic risks when Russia controls the island.
Snake Island is located close to the mouth of the Danube River, which demarcates Romania’s border with Ukraine. The Romanian port of Constanta in the Black Sea is not far away and now ships in it no longer have access to the important Ukrainian port of Odessa.
Russian military-political analyst Alexander Mikhailov said that the Russian army on Snake Island can control traffic into the northwestern Black Sea and the Danube Delta – the gateway to Southeast Europe. “If there is a military base or military infrastructure here, Russia can block ships coming or leaving this river,” he said.
Romania’s Euro-Atlantic Center believes that Moscow is likely to annex the island and control many of the Black Sea shipping lanes heading to the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey.
Historically, Snake Island was Romanian territory but it was later transferred to the Soviet Union for use as a radar base in 1948. Bucharest accepted the agreement while under Soviet influence. until 1989.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the International Court of Justice imposed territorial limits on the island, giving Romania almost 80% of the Black Sea continental shelf near the island and Ukraine the rest.
In addition to its great military role, the strategic value of Snake Island is also reflected in the economic aspect. This place is very rich in hydrocarbon resources and also has abundant oil and gas resources. According to analysts, despite its very small area, the fate of this island was one of the main factors in the Russo-Ukraine war.