The Fall of Snake Island is an Inflection Point in the Ukraine War
Perception and reality are difficult to untangle in any conflict. But the Ukraine War is the first great power conflict waged fully in the Information Age. Both parties have sought to influence global narratives and manipulate international perception.
War is, nevertheless, a physical phenomenon. The fall of Snake Island demonstrates Russia’s physical inability to defeat Ukraine. The West should respond accordingly, pressuring Russia where it is most critical – in the maritime space.
Snake Island produced the Ukraine War’s first “internet meme”, a sign of its psychological importance to Kyiv and Moscow. The small, uninhabited outcrop’s garrison of a handful of Ukrainian Border Troops defiantly refused Russia’s demand to surrender. Ironically enough, the Russian warship that bombarded the island, the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva, was sunk some six weeks later near Snake Island.
Snake Island is well under a kilometer in area and has an elevation of only 45 meters. However, it has a dual political and strategic role. Politically, it marks the boundary of Ukrainian territorial waters, jutting out from the Danube Delta into the Black Sea. Militarily, a hostile power holding Snake Island can pressure Ukrainian, Romanian, and other naval and maritime movement in the Western Black Sea. Snake Island is a decisive maritime geographic point, a position from which one can limit hostile options and expand one’s own.
By taking Snake Island on the war’s first day, Russia gave itself a significant degree of leverage over Ukraine’s maritime position. Combined with the Moskva’s air defenses, it could prevent Ukrainian missile and drone attacks in the Black Sea, better cover its forces in Kherson Oblast, and over time threaten Odesa with bombardment or amphibious assault.
Ukraine, however, destroyed the Moskva in April. This was not only a psychological victory. It also removed from Russia a major mobile air defense platform. This left Russian forces on Snake Island and in the Western Black Sea vulnerable to attack. Ukraine kept up the pressure, hitting Russian attack craft and landing ships, and sporadically bombarding Snake Island. Russia sought to redeploy point air defenses to Snake Island, mitigating the effectiveness of Ukrainian missiles and UCAVs. However, armed with Western artillery, Ukraine could neutralize Russian point air defenses – some air defense platforms are designed to intercept small targets, but artillery shells or guided rockets are too small to identify.
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