The island — known as Zmiinyi Ostriv in Ukrainian — lies about 30 miles (48 kilometers) off the coast of Ukraine and near the sea routes leading to the Bosphorus and the Mediterranean Sea.
Moscow has never laid claim to Snake Island, and it’s far from any part of mainland Russia. It is over 180 miles from Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. In no geographical or historical sense could Russia claim it.
But damn the story because it has strategic value and the Russians clearly thought it would be easy pickings. Even before the conflict, Ukraine knew it was vulnerable. Last year, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy flew to Snake Island, where there are no voters but a few sheep, to emphasize that it matters. “This island, like the rest of our territory, is Ukrainian land and we will defend it with all our might,” he said.
But Snake Island has far more than symbolic significance. Allow the Russians to ground facts there and Ukraine would no longer be able to guarantee the freedom of sea routes between the port of Odessa and the rest of the world. Much of Ukraine’s agricultural wealth reaches world markets via Odessa.
Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said on Friday whoever holds Snake Island is controlling “the surface and, to some extent, the air situation in southern Ukraine.”
“Whoever controls the island can block the movement of civilian ships in all directions to southern Ukraine at any time,” Budanov added.
For this reason alone, Ukraine has vowed it will deny the territory to the Russians even if it cannot retake it immediately.
In a series of attacks over the past 10 days, its drones and other assets have targeted Russian units trying to consolidate their presence on the island.
Satellite images from May 12 show a landing ship submerged near the island’s only wharf, and Ukraine says it also hit two patrol boats nearby.
Over the weekend, other images showed two columns of smoke rising from the island. One is said to be from a Mi-8 helicopter that was flying in Russian marines. It was attacked by a missile, according to drone video released by the Ukrainian military, which has also released footage of anti-aircraft installations on the attacked island.
The Odessa Regional Military Administration claimed on Thursday that a Russian support ship, the Vsevolod Bobrov, was on fire and being towed from the Snake Island area to Sevastopol. The claim remains unconfirmed by CNN and Russia has denied any casualties around the island.
So why are the Russians going to such lengths to hold Snake Island? Because it has the potential to be an unsinkable, albeit static, aircraft carrier crammed with electronic warfare and anti-ship capabilities. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the Russians were trying to “improve their position on the island to block Ukrainian maritime communications and capabilities in the north-western Black Sea, particularly towards Odessa.”
Budanov also pointed out that Snake Island could also be useful for the Russians if they want to increase their presence in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region, which is run by a pro-Russian government and has about 1,500 Russian troops stationed there.
Snake Island has actually been contested before, but only in court. Romania and Ukraine have had a longstanding territorial dispute over the island and surrounding seabed, which may contain hydrocarbon potential. The International Court of Justice finally established the status of the island and the borders of the exclusive economic zones of Ukraine and Romania in 2009.
This time, it seems extremely unlikely that the fate of Snake Island will be decided in court.