On June 30, the Russian troops retreated from Snake Island, a long-contested strategic and symbolic outpost since the invasion of Ukraine started. After the Russian’s withdrawal, the Ukrainian Navy announced that they had recaptured the island.

Moscow’s defense ministry said they withdrew their forces as a “goodwill gesture.” The withdrawal was aimed at facilitating grain exports. Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman of the Russian Defense Ministry, said that their move shows that “the Russian Federation does not interfere with the efforts of the U.N. to organize a humanitarian corridor for the export of agricultural products from the territory of Ukraine.”

However, the Ukrainian military said that the Russian’s pull out from the island was due to the sustained attacks on the island. The Ukrainians had been using the weapons they had received from the West. They used these Western weapons to conduct a near-endless barrage of artillery and missile strikes on the Russian forces on the rocky all but barren island.

Snake Island on the morning of June 30, 2022. The official announcement of OK “South”: During the night, as a result of another successful stage of the military operation with strikes by our missile and artillery units on the Snake Island, the opponent hurriedly evacuated the remains of the garrison with two-speed boats and probably left the island. Currently, the island is covered in the fire; explosions are bursting. The final results of the operation are being investigated. (Mil.gov.uaCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Because of these attacks, Russian forces struggled to hold the island and were constantly trying to resupply and sustain the garrison, only to see whatever they had landed get bombed the next day or in the next hour. These resupply efforts required a lot of resources from the Russian navy and air force to maintain their presence on this rock that Russia badly needed elsewhere. Finally, the attacks prompted the remaining Russian troops to leave the island in two speedboats.

When the island was under Russian control, they used their position on the island as a staging ground. They launched attacks and monitored the shipments from the Ukrainian ports. They could do so because the island was just 80 miles southwest of the port city of Odessa.

Grain Export

Because of the war, tons of Ukraine’s agricultural goods were left stranded in silos. This is because Russia had implemented a de facto blockade of key Ukrainian Black Sea ports with their warships and submarines.

This blockade was preventing food, including grain, from being exported. Because of this, the Western leaders accused the Kremlin of creating a global food crisis.

As previously mentioned, Moscow said that the retreat was to facilitate grain export. They also said they would not prevent the shipment of grains. Questions remain whether these shipments can resume as Russia has employed sea mines in the shipping lanes and has not removed them in keeping up a blockade on the port of Odesa.  Ukrainian officials are wary of any assurances by Russia that the mines have been removed.

The Ukrainian seaport of Odesa. Image courtesy of Odesa-journal.co

But, if all these assurances were trustworthy, they would significantly help address the war’s global food shortage.

Despite all these promises, there has been no sign that Russia will be lifting the blockade that will allow the safe passage of Ukrainian vessels leaving the port of Odesa. A report by Radio Free Europe in Crimea said that the Black Sea fleet has sortied five out of seven Russian submarines from the port of Sevastopol. Russian submarines are capable of deploying sea mines.

Hence, this alleged “gesture of goodwill” looks more like Russia avoiding having to call the withdrawal a costly defeat. Moscow also tried to cast its abandonment of it initial invasion goals as a success even as they were being forced to retreat and reconsolidate their forces in Luhansk and Donbas to prevent being annihilated by Ukrainian army forces. 

In a report by Reuters, a Kyiv-based diplomat said that the Russian retreat from Snake Island is still insufficient to transport Ukrainian grain safely. The diplomat stated, “There is a requirement for demining, and Russia still has capabilities (military vessels, coastal [coastal] defense systems and air superiority) that will allow them to interdict shipping lanes.”

The diplomat also added that if Ukraine wants to unblock its ports to export grain, it would require allied support and would need Turkey to play a crucial role.

Raising the Flag

Snake Island, August 2021. (President.gov.uaCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Now that the Russians are gone, the Ukrainians plan to raise the country’s flag on the island. 

The Spokesperson for Ukraine’s Southern Military Command, Natalia Humeniuk, initially told reporters that the flag had been raised on the island. Then, however, she clarified that her statement was “metaphorical.”

“The flag has been delivered to the island by helicopter. It will wait for the arrival of the troops; then it will wave,” Humeniuk was quoted telling CNN. She said that “no one landed on the island,” so there was no one to raise the flag. She added that “no one will risk people for the sake of a photo for the media.”

Right now, it is still unclear if Ukraine would still re-establish a permanent presence on the island. The island’s position is dangerous and an easy target for bombardment. 

According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Russian withdrawal from the island will “significantly limit” Russia’s activities in the Black Sea, even though it will not guarantee the region’s safety.

In his nightly address, he said, “Step by step, we will push (Russia) out of our sea, our land, our sky.”

Fall of Luhansk

A few days after Ukraine reclaimed Snake Island, the Russians had successfully captured the last Ukrainian holdouts in the city of Lysychansk. The city’s capture marks the fall of the entire Luhansk region under Russian control.

The Ukrainian troops in Lysychansk have repositioned in new locations, according to Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai. The governor said they may have lost the battle in Lysychansk, but it doesn’t mean they lost the war.

Ukraine was able to make an orderly retreat from a salient created by Russian advances, but the Russians were unable to close the pocket and cut off Ukrainian forces inside it.

President Zelensky said in a video that they would retake the lost territory with the help of Western weapons. He said, “We will rebuild the walls, we will win back the land, and people must be protected above all else.”

With the war on its way to its fifth month, both sides have taken losses and victories, but the war seems to show no signs of stopping soon.