After being initially declared by the Ukrainian government dead, the sailors from Snake Island who gained international fame as an audio recording of their supposed “last words” saying “Go f*ck yourself” to a Russian warship are now freed through a prisoner exchange that had occurred last Thursday.
The Ukrainian Parliament (also known as the Verkhovna Rada) reported that 19 Ukrainian sailors stationed on Snake Island were freed as part of an exchange of “war hostages.” The exchange was said to be executed upon Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s orders.
⚡️ The first exchange of war hostages occurred on President @ZelenskyyUa's order. Additionally, today, #Ukraine exchanged 11 Russian sailors we rescued from a sunken ship near #Odesa to 19 Ukrainian sailors (authors of the legendary phrase "Russian warship go f*** yourself")
— Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine – Ukrainian Parliament (@ua_parliament) March 24, 2022
Furthermore, according to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, Russia and Ukraine agreed to swap prisoners in what she called to be the “first full-fledged swap” of the 5-week-old conflict. An additional 10 Ukrainian servicemen were freed along with the previously mentioned 19 Ukrainian sailors, including those from the Sapphire rescue ship. They were also captured due to their efforts to rescue the Snake Island sailors away from the Russians.
However, it is important to note that Vereshchuk characterized the 19 Ukrainian sailors as “civilian sailors,” whereas the Ukrainian Parliament classified them as the sailors from Snake Island. This may possibly be a translation error from Vereshchuk. You may see her announcement on her Telegram.
In exchange, the Ukrainian side had released 10 captured Russians along with 11 Russian sailors who were earlier rescued by the Ukrainian Armed Forces from a ship that sank near the vicinity of Odesa. The rescue ship will also be returned to Ukraine through a port in Turkey.
“Our sailors will return home from the rescue ship “Sapphire,” which was captured by the Russian occupiers while trying to withdraw Ukrainian troops from the #Zmiiny island. Under the exchange terms, the lifeboat will also be returned to #Ukraine and sent to a Turkish port,” said the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine in a follow-up tweet.
The sailors from Snake Island (Zmiinyi Island) were originally thought to be dead. They were treated as one of the first casualties of the war as various news outlets assumed that the Russian warship had fired on them after one sailor from Snake Island told the Russian forces to “Go f*ck yourself.”
The once iconic exchange went viral through social media and YouTube and was seen as a clip that showed fierce Ukrainian resistance. The Russian warship had communicated to the Ukrainians found on the 40-acre rocky island about 70 nautical miles from Odesa, briefly warning them that they would open fire on the Ukrainians if they did not surrender.
“This is a Russian military warship. I suggest you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise, you will be bombed,” the Russian warship warned.
A pause was taken by the Ukrainians, asking whether they should tell the warship to “f*ck off,” to which they agreed and told the Russians to plainly, “Go f*ck yourself.”
Afterward, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the sailors as having “died heroically” and announced that all members of the Snake Island garrison would be awarded the “Hero of Ukraine” award “posthumously.” The award is considered the highest military honor one can obtain from the President of Ukraine.
“Defending the Zmeinyi island, all our border guards died a heroic death. But they have not surrendered,” said Zelensky. “They will all be awarded posthumously the title of the Hero of Ukraine. Let those who gave their lives for Ukraine be remembered forever.”
They were later confirmed to be alive by the Ukrainian government after Russia Today, a state-controlled media outlet, had released footage of the Snake Island sailors being offloaded to Sevastopol, Crimea, where the Russians have controlled the area since 2014.
The postage stamp named "Russian warship, go f**k yourself!" will appear in🇺🇦. The sketch by artist Boris Groh received the most votes and will soon be published by Ukraine's state postal company.
— Emine Dzheppar (@EmineDzheppar) March 12, 2022
The sailors became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, so much that Ukraine had made a postage stamp depicting the Ukrainian soldier showing the middle finger to a Russian warship and subsequently named it “Russian warship, go f*ck yourself!” The postage stamp was announced by Ukraine’s first deputy foreign minister Emine Dzheppar, who said that the stamps were to commemorate the 13 border guards stationed at Snake Island. The postage stamp was created through a competition organized by the Ukrainian government, which was won by artist Boris Groh.
The stamp is largely seen to be a masterful public image campaign for Ukraine, and rallying increased morale for its citizens and Armed Forces, as well as gaining the support of the international arena.
However, there have been certain instances where their PR campaigns and propaganda campaigns have missed the mark. One was when the Ukrainian government posted a comparison of the number of missiles fired on Syria and Ukraine. The post was subsequently taken down due to backlash.
Similar POW exchanges were also seen last week as Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov, who was captured by Russian forces, was freed in exchange for 9 young Russian soldiers POWs who were born from 2002 to 2003, which indicated that these were conscripts who were forced to fight as they were literally just children.
With the sailors now freed, Zelensky can now award them the Hero of Ukraine award if he chooses to keep the promise he made when it was believed they were all dead.