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Russia’s Defeat at Snake Island Is a Big Setback in the Ukraine War

Harpoon Block II
Harpoon Block II. Image Credit: Boeing.

The naval war in the Black Sea is heating up, and it looks as if the Ukrainians may have won a significant victory. Russia announced this morning that it would withdraw its forces from strategic Snake Island, a position that it seized at the beginning of the war and that has come to symbolize the course of the conflict. There seems little doubt that Ukrainian forces will soon reoccupy the island.

Strategic Value

Snake Island commands the approaches to three ports in Western Ukraine, making it critical for control of the maritime space in the western Black Sea.

Snake Island also sits near the delta of the Danube River, giving it strategic relevance in any conflict between Russia and NATO.

Russia seized the island in the opening days of the war in a now-famous incident characterized by a Ukrainian soldier rejecting Russian demands for surrender. The cruiser that issued those demands, the RFS Moskva, was later sunk by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.

Since then Ukraine has taken expensive measures to retake the island, including attacks by drones and fixed-wing fighter-bombers as well as rumored raids by special forces.

Both Russia and Ukraine seem (until yesterday) to have regarded Snake Island as a point of critical strategic importance, making Russia’s claims that it is withdrawing for humanitarian reasons altogether absurd.

Equipment

Part of the story of the Snake Island Campaign involves the transfer of increasingly lethal Western equipment to Ukraine. Although Harpoon, Exocet, and Norwegian Naval Strike missiles did not reclaim Snake Island on their own, they certainly changed the nature of the strategic situation for Russia. Harpoon missiles helped sank a Russian tug that was attempting to deliver supplies to the island last month, and the growing effectiveness of what amounts to Ukrainian shore artillery made it impossible for Russia to reliably reinforce and resupply Snake Island.

Air resupply was out because of the proximity of Ukrainian fighter aircraft and stationary air defenses.

Finally, long-range artillery seems to have played a role. Reports are unclear about the specific artillery systems that Ukraine used to dislodge Russian forces, but long-range artillery would have made the Russian position untenable. This would not require massive amounts of ordnance, simply regular, accurate fire that Russian forces could not answer.

Grain Exports

Unfortunately, the reclamation of Snake Island does not mean that Ukraine has broken the Russian blockade.

Snake Island sits in a strategic position of enormous long-term influence, but the Russian installation was not preventing the export of Ukrainian grain or the delivery of goods to Odessa. Assuming that the attrition of Russian naval vessels does not substantially increase over the next months, Russia can maintain the blockade indefinitely. In particular, Ukraine does not have a good answer for the submarines of the Black Sea Fleet that continue to fire long-range missiles at targets across the country. Theoretically the West could offer anti-submarine warfare technologies, but ASW is among the most complicated of military operations, and the United States and other NATO countries are unlikely to want to give the Russians insight into their ASW technologies and techniques.

Sadly, most of the options for breaking the blockade (including the announcement of a safe corridor, or the reflagging of ships in transit to Ukraine) remain bad and sport significant escalation dangers.

Wrap

And so the naval war continues, even though only one combatant still has a navy. In an unsurprising development, Ukraine has attacked Russian oil platforms in the Black Sea, indicating the capability and willingness to inflict pain on Russia (not to mention the local environment). Russia continues to use its submarines to maintain the blockade and to launch missiles against Ukrainian land targets.

This war will not be decided at sea, Ukraine’s recent victories notwithstanding, but the outcome of fighting at sea will undoubtedly have an impact on the course of the war on land.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert Farley, a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. from Russia with love

    June 30, 2022 at 3:34 pm

    I wonder if the author of this idiotic article looked at the map? Zmeniny Island is of no strategic importance. at all.
    but the article is illustrative. the “great victory on Serpent’s Island” will certainly overshadow the minor failure with the defeat of 10,000 groups in Lisichansk-Severodonetsk. :)))

    • Ghost of Kyiv

      June 30, 2022 at 5:14 pm

      Given the materiel and manpower Putin has sacrificed on Snake Island over the last 4 months would indicate you don’t know what you’re talking about. Face it, he just isn’t man enough to hold the island or win the war. He’s an old man with delusions of being Peter the Great, but terrified of NATO.

    • Mario

      June 30, 2022 at 5:23 pm

      So, if it’s not a valuable asset, why did you take it in the opening days of the agression? Be cautious: Black sea ships are now 50 kms closer from the Harpoons… And that’s allways bad news for russians.

      Anohow, we’ve got a good time laughing at the alleged Russian goodwill… The jester of the Russian defense ministry, it’s cool!!!

    • Omega 13

      June 30, 2022 at 5:38 pm

      As they say in Russia, Ivan: “Tough Shitsky!”

      (In southern Russia they say, “Tough Shitsky, y’all!”

    • aldol11

      July 1, 2022 at 7:12 am

      go back to Moscow imbecile

    • David Ater

      July 1, 2022 at 12:48 pm

      Zmeniny/snake island has its greatest importance after the war. When international borders are drawn, the island being Russian would severally reduce the Ukraine access to the Black Sea and reduce its rights to an economic zone (up to 200 miles) of the the sea bed. By just looking at the map, I would estimate nearly a 1/3rd of the Ukrainian economic zone would be Russian. So long term ownership does matter, post war. The island is so close to land, it seems impossible to defend for Russia without complete air supperiority.

    • mcswell

      July 1, 2022 at 9:36 pm

      I suppose that’s why Russia spent so much effort trying to hold it, losing a number of ships and probably men in the process, and why Ukraine spent so much effort taking it back.

      You know, you’re not of Facebook here. Some people here can actually think for themselves (although you don’t seem to be one of them).

  2. Stefan Stackhouse

    June 30, 2022 at 8:58 pm

    Here’s an idea: collect (carefully!) and transport a few hundred of the poisonous snakes from the Brazilian “Snake Island” and transfer them to the Ukrainian one. That would be a certain and low-cost way to assure that the Russians didn’t try to occupy the island again.

  3. 5am

    June 30, 2022 at 11:14 pm

    (Not to mention the local environment)😂
    What a f’n stooge.

  4. Error404

    July 1, 2022 at 6:26 am

    Snake island should not hold back forces needed to whack the dirty fascist mobs which are in odessa.

    The best news now is that US Navy’s second (successive!) test of its CPS hypersonic missile FAILED on june 29 2022. This contrasts VERY GREATLY with russia’s recent successful combat use of kinzhals and PRC’s successful tests of its air-launched and surface-launched hypersonic yj-21 missile.

    NOW IS THE TIME FOR RUSSIA TO FLATTEN FASCIST NESTS like odessa while US grapples with hyper weapon failures !!! !!!

    There’s no time to waste!

  5. Tomb

    July 1, 2022 at 12:02 pm

    You are all wrong.
    Ukraine should sent frogmen and set up fake barracks and fake anti aircraft
    Sites. Then Russians ships come closer to investigate and get sunk !
    Or Russia expends more of their expensive high tech cruise missiles
    To destroy cheap dummies. :^)

  6. Ben Leucking

    July 1, 2022 at 7:03 pm

    The author says: “There seems little doubt that Ukrainian forces will soon reoccupy the island.”
    That would contradict what the Ukraine Southern Military Command has said. Until Russian submarines and aircraft are destroyed, reoccupying Snake Island would place Ukraine’s defenders in precisely that same situation that forced Russia to abandon it. All Ukraine needs to do is deny it to Russian occupiers.

  7. Si

    July 2, 2022 at 6:39 am

    I agree they need to eradicated from earth to desist fast. Inbred fascist mungrels.

  8. circumspect

    July 2, 2022 at 11:20 am

    A withdrawal from Snake Island is not a “victory”. Any Ukrainian forces occupying the island can be easily calibrated at any time as there is no cover on that small rock.

    Its position on the battlefield is not consequential at all. Meanwhile the Ukrainian military is being slowly ground down in consequential parts of the country.

    NATO and the Anglo-American alliance have taken a foolish course for decades encircling and antagonizing Russia when they could have easily been a partner in prosperity for all. You will reap the consequences.

    • Stanislav

      July 2, 2022 at 9:26 pm

      “NATO and the Anglo-American alliance have taken a foolish course for decades encircling and antagonizing Russia”

      How many rubles did you get paid to post this? How did NATO “encircle” Russia? Did it invade adjoining countries by sending in armies? No. Only Russia is doing that.

      Except for impoverished and dictatorial Belarus, independent sovereign countries no longer want to be the subordinates of Russia. This is why so many formerly eastern bloc countries are helping Ukraine – because they know they could be next.

      Whether these countries choose NATO, EU, or remain independent is their decision and not Putin’s. Invading sovereign countries, killing its people, and trying to impose your will on them has consequences, as Putin (and the Russian economy) is discovering.

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