A Visit to Snake Island
The Ukrainian army organised a press tour to the tiny rock outcrop with a huge strategic significance.
It takes an hour’s ride on a bright orange motorboat, waves splashing down cold, salty water on our small group, before the hazy contour of Snake Island emerges on the horizon.
Nothing more than a rock of 0.17 square kilometres, the island’s strategic relevance belies its size. Lying 35 kilometres from the Ukrainian coast, east of the mouth of the Danube river, it plays a crucial role in ensuring the safety of maritime trade routes and controlling passage across the Black Sea. As such, the Russian army targeted it as a launch pad to breach into southern Ukraine. It became a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance when on February 24, the first day of the full-scale invasion, a Russian naval ship warned Ukrainian soldiers to surrender or be killed. In response, one Ukrainian border officer famously replied, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” – a phrase which soon went viral, printed on t-shirts, banners, road signs and even a postal stamp.
The battle for the island lasted months: the Ukrainian army targeted it with artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, UAVs, and fighter jets. In early July, the blue and yellow flag flapped again. The Russians had left.
“The Russians have left, and the Russians have come back. There is just one caveat,” joked one of the commanders, Ilya Bohdanov; the caveat being that he himself is a former officer in Russia’s security services. The former Russian citizen joined the Ukrainian army as a volunteer in 2014 and fought in Donbas until 2015 before becoming a restauranteur. In February 2022 he went back to fighting the Russian army in the wake of the invasion. He was seriously wounded in the Kyv region in spring and after a long rehabilitation joined the newly formed Russian Volunteer Corps. Part of the Ukrainian army’s International Legion, the group is made up of Russians who, at the start of the invasion, lived in Ukraine, Russia or Europe, and who decided to fight alongside Ukrainians. This winter, they keep watch on Snake Island together with special forces detachments.
“We prevent the landing of possible saboteur groups and watch the surrounding seas,” Bohdanov told IWPR. “The island was hit by missiles a few times. The enemy is capable of detecting cell phone signals, so we don't turn them on [Crimea about 250 kilometres away]. Sometimes Russian jets fly around.”
Like him, his comrades have serious combat experience: most spent years on the Donbas frontline.
Our motorboat circles the island and we film and photograph this piece of rock; it does not take us long, the most strategic island in the Black Sea is just 600 metres long. Its cliffy shores make mooring extremely hard even when the sea is calm, and it is definitely not calm today.
We jump off the boat onto slippery stones and start to climb up the hill, accompanied by a straggle of the island’s cats. They survived the shelling and are now being fed by soldiers. Russians left behind piles of food in the warehouses – enough for everybody, four-legged creatures included, soldiers say. Green cardboard boxes with Russian army symbols are scattered everywhere, alongside opened containers of canned beef, vegetables and sweets.
From small barracks to a lighthouse and a few hangars, everything on the island seems ruined or seriously damaged by artillery fire. We carefully walk along narrow footpaths, aware of mines or improvised explosive devices (IED). I spot some Russian anti-personnel mines – soldiers reassure us that they are now disabled – and a few mortars.
To deceive Russia’s powerful air-defence systems, the Ukrainian army used a combination of various artillery types and missiles. After a few months of shelling, the Russian forces withdrew. What was left of their detachments were evacuated by sea.
Bohdanov and his comrades point out remnants of Russian military might.
“This is the terror of the Russian army, a TOR missile system. Destroyed,” Bohdanov explains, pointing out the remains of a low-to-medium altitude air defence system, capable of detecting up to 48 targets simultaneously. “And this one is almost untouched. We even have stockpiles of missiles for it.”
Among the burnt-out carcasses of helicopters and military trucks is even a brand new Pantsir missile system. There were at least two of them on the island – we see the devastated remains of the same machine nearby.
Bohdanov, along with two fighters nicknamed Shamil and Fortune, walk us through the destroyed houses, including the debris of the old lighthouse said to have been erected on the remains of a sixth century temple dedicated to Achilles.
Snake Island has always been shrouded in mystery. Ancient Greeks believed that the island was home to Achilles, their greatest hero, and built shrines dedicated to him. Contended by various powers over the centuries, it was a military base in Soviet times and maintained off-limit status in independent Ukraine. Only a few border guards kept watch there until 2007, when Kyiv built Bile, the island’s sole settlement. Its purpose was to consolidate the status of the island as an inhabited place, after years of negotiations between Romania, which controlled the island until the end of WWII, and Ukraine, which inherited it from the Soviet Union. A handful of people lived in Bile, mainly to look after the lighthouse; built in 1842, it was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in 1944. Little remains of it now.
Residents ran a small farm and would occasionally invite guests to watch the sunset from the island’s highest point, at 40 metres above sea level. In 2021 such visits were forbidden, as the Ukrainian navy decided to reinforce the island’s military presence.
As we leave, the sea is in turmoil again. As the waves rise, the helmsman swears at the journalists, the soldiers, the weather, the wind and the whole idea of venturing to Snake Island so late in the first place. We depart at 4pm and hope to reach the mainland in an hour and-a-half. We race through the cresting waves, which hit us even harder than in the morning and threaten to rises above our boat.
Then a wave hits us too heavily for the navigational equipment to function. Lost at sea, our pilot manages to see the shore and accelerates towards it in hope of reaching the base before nightfall. Instead, we wash up near the Danube estuary. Over the next five hours, we wait for the rescue operation, trying to cheer ourselves up.
“I served in the military and am used to being dark and wet. You’ll find yourself under a hot shower before you know it,” a British security expert repeats so often that I end up believing him. We stare at the sky, full of stars, shining so brightly, forgetting our ruined boots and dripping wet clothes. I dream about visiting the island again, after Ukraine wins the war.
This publication was prepared under the “Ukraine Voices Project" implemented with the financial support of the UK's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO).