Russian troops have withdrawn from Serpents’ Island in the Black Sea after repeated attacks by Ukrainian forces, a setback for Moscow’s forces and possibly undermining their control of vital shipping lanes.
The retreat came after constant Ukrainian attacks, including with powerful newly arrived Western weapons, made it impossible for Russian forces to hold onto the island, a small patch of land 20 miles off the coast of Odessa that played a huge role throughout the war.
Coming just a week after the Kremlin boasted of rebuffing a Ukrainian attempt to retake the island, the Russian troop withdrawal was yet another example of Moscow lowering its military ambitions in the face of Ukrainian resistance.
Both the Russians and Ukrainians confirmed the retreat on Thursday, with the Ukrainians saying it came after a military campaign that began more than a week ago, with repeated attacks on the island and Russian attempts to resupply the garrison with rocket and artillery fire.
According to the southern command of the Ukrainian armed forces, the last Russian soldiers on the island, which in Ukrainian is called Serpentine, fled at night on two speedboats.
“There are no more Russians on Zmeevo,” said Andriy Yermak, head of the office of the President of Ukraine. “The armed forces did an excellent job.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense, in a statement, sought to present the retreat as a “goodwill gesture” that would “not allow Kyiv to speculate on a looming food crisis,” as control of the island is vital to securing shipping lanes to the northwestern corner of the Black Sea. A virtual naval blockade of Russia has prevented Ukraine from exporting much of its pre-war average monthly grain supply of five million tons.
However, Russia maintains that its blockade and dominance of the sea is still close to completion. He showed no indication that he would allow safe passage for Ukrainian ships leaving the port of Odessa.
Natalia Gumenyuk, a spokeswoman for the southern command of the Ukrainian armed forces, said on Tuesday that Ukraine had destroyed three anti-aircraft missile systems recently installed on the island. She said that as a result of the latest attack, the radar station was out of order, which made it impossible to provide assistance to Russian troops on the island.
The fortress island has been a Russian target since the first day of the invasion, when the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva arrived to order the surrender of the soldiers stationed at the tiny Ukrainian outpost. The soldiers’ refusal of the soldiers became the battle cry of the nation.
The sinking of the Moskva in April, one of Ukraine’s most widely celebrated victories in the war, raised the island’s importance to both Ukraine and Russia.
Russia has deployed powerful anti-aircraft missile systems to the island to support its ground forces. The Russian fleet has also begun to operate farther from the coast of Ukraine, out of the reach of land-based anti-ship missiles.
But the danger to Russian ships has increased, as more powerful Western anti-ship systems began to arrive at the end of May. Around June 20, Ukrainian forces resumed their offensive on the island, striking a Russian tugboat that was carrying out the task of delivering weapons and personnel to the island.
The Ukrainians “almost certainly” used newly delivered Harpoon missiles in the attack, the British military said, which said it was their first demonstrated use.
But the struggle for the island continued. Satellite images released last week showed results visible from space – large new scars dotting 46 acres of rock and grass rising above the sea.
On Thursday morning, the Ukrainian military said they used rockets and artillery in the latest attack to disable another Russian anti-missile system. “Snake Island is on fire, explosions are heard,” the Ukrainian command said.
The last Russians boarded two boats and sped away. But given its vulnerability, it was unclear whether the Ukrainians would attempt to rebuild their own garrison on Serpent Island.