Snake Island, also known as Zmiinyi Island, lies about 40 km off the southern coast and is a key outpost to control shipping lanes for the export of Ukrainian grain and access to the port Odessa key.
“On June 30, as a sign of goodwill, the Russian Armed Forces completed their assigned tasks on Snake Island and withdrew the garrison stationed there,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
“[We] demonstrated to the world community that the Russian Federation does not interfere with UN efforts to organize a humanitarian corridor for the export of agricultural products from the territory of Ukraine.
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The Russian Army previously described the withdrawals from Kyiv and other parts of central Ukraine as “goodwill gestures” after facing fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces and suffering significant casualties.
The Defense Ministry added in its Thursday statement that “it is now up to Ukraine” to clear its ports and resume grain shipments.
The war has cut off vital shipping lanes, leaving tons of Ukrainian agricultural produce stranded in silos. Western leaders have accused Moscow of holding food-insecure countries hostage by disrupting supplies and contributing to world hunger.
Moscow responded by saying it would not impede grain shipments or use port clearances to renew an attack on Odessa, but Ukrainian officials have been reluctant to keep that promise.
Covering just 0.17 square kilometers (0.06 square miles), Snake Island made headlines at the start of the war when a Russian warship ordered a small team of Ukrainian border guards to surrender or face an attack. The Ukrainians replied, “Russian warship, fuck you,” prompting the Russians to open fire.
It was initially thought that the resisters had been killed, but later they would have been taken prisoner. Their heroic stand was celebrated across Ukraine on stamps and posters and hailed as a rallying moment in defense of their country.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine confirmed the Russian withdrawal on their Facebook page Thursday and thanked nearby Odessa fighters for helping reclaim the “strategically important” territory.
The Ukrainian army recently embarked on a new mission to retake the island and launched a series of attacks against Russian forces.
Last week, the Southern Ukraine Operational Command said it had used “targeted strikes with the use of various forces” on Snake Island, causing “significant casualties” among Russian troops and the destruction of Russian air, radar and vehicle defense systems. The announcement came just days after Moscow boasted of repelling attacks from Ukraine by destroying more than a dozen drones and shooting down 21 missiles. The Washington Post could not independently verify these claims.
Ukraine’s success in the push to Snake Island is partly attributed to new arms shipments from the West. British intelligence said Ukraine had “almost certainly” succeeded in sinking the Russian navy tug Spasatel Vasily Bekh, which was delivering weapons and personnel to Snake Island, using donated Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
War reporters and pro-Russian bloggers also linked Ukraine’s increased combat capabilities to French CAESAR artillery systems, stationed in Odessa, as one of the reasons for the withdrawal, signaling a victory for Kyiv and its Western allies.
“After the transfer of the French self-propelled howitzers CAESAR and [tactical missiles] Tochka-U in the Odessa region, the density of artillery fire from the Odessa region has increased in many ways,” a popular Telegram blogger known as Rybar wrote on Thursday.
The decision to withdraw from the island was described as a setback for Russian forces but “a necessary decision to save the lives of Russian soldiers” in pro-Kremlin media.
The news comes as NATO leaders continue to meet in Madrid on Thursday, for a third and final day. President Biden announced at the rally on Wednesday that the United States would increase its military presence in Europe, citing the invasion of Russia. The new deployments will include a permanent headquarters for the US 5th Army Corps in Poland.
Suliman reported from London. David Walker in the UK contributed to this report