(CNN) — It’s just 40 acres of rock and grass with no fresh water (and no snakes, either), but Snake Island in the Black Sea has taken on iconic significance in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
The island, known as Zmiinyi Ostriv in Ukrainian, is located about 30 miles off the coast of Ukraine and close to the sea lanes leading to the Bosphorus and the Mediterranean.
Moscow has never claimed Snake Island, and it is a long way from anywhere on the Russian mainland. It is more than 290 kilometers from Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. In no geographical or historical sense could Russia claim it as its own.
But to hell with the story because it has strategic value and the Russians clearly thought it would be easy plunder. Even before the conflict, Ukraine knew that it was vulnerable. Last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky flew to the island, where there are no voters but a few sheep, to highlight his relevance. “This island, like the rest of our territory, is Ukrainian land, and we will defend it with all our might,” he said.
The Russians attacked Snake Island on the first day of the war, in late February, when a now famous exchange took place between its Ukrainian defenders and the Russian navy. Ordered to surrender, the island’s small detachment of sailors responded by radio: “Russian warship, fuck you,” an exchange that became the central idea of the Ukrainian resistance.
But the relevance of the island of Snakes is much more than merely symbolic. If the Russians are allowed to settle there, Ukraine will no longer be able to guarantee free sea lanes between the port of Odessa and the rest of the world. It is through Odessa that much of Ukraine’s agricultural wealth travels to world markets.
Ukraine’s defense intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said on Friday that whoever has Snake Island controls “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 the south of Ukraine at any time,” Budanov added.
For that alone, Ukraine has promised that even if it cannot immediately recapture the territory, it will not let the Russians have it.
The Ukrainians have carried out a series of attacks by drones and other means in the last 10 days on Russian units trying to consolidate their presence on the island.
Satellite images from May 12 show a submerged landing ship near the island’s only pier and Ukraine says it also attacked two nearby patrol boats.
Over the weekend, other images showed two plumes of smoke rising from the island. One of them is believed to have come from an Mi-8 helicopter carrying Russian marines. He was attacked with a missile, according to the video of a drone released by the Ukrainian Army, which has also published images of attacks on anti-aircraft installations on the island.
The Odessa Regional Military Administration said on Thursday that a Russian support ship, the “Vsevolod Bobrov”, was on fire and was being towed to Sevastopol from the Snake Island area. The claim remains unverified by CNN and Russia has denied that there have been any losses around the island.
So why are the Russians trying so hard to maintain control of Snake Island? Because it has the potential to be an unsinkable, albeit static, aircraft carrier packed with anti-ship and electronic warfare capabilities. On Thursday, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the Russians were trying to “improve their position on the island in an effort to block Ukrainian maritime communications and capabilities in the northwestern Black Sea, in particular towards Odessa.”
Budanov also noted that Snake Island could also be useful to the Russians if they wanted to bolster their presence in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria, which is run by a pro-Russian administration and is home to some 1,500 Russian soldiers.
Actually, it is not the first time that the island has been disputed, but only in court. Romania and Ukraine have had a longstanding territorial dispute over the island and the surrounding seabed, which may contain potential hydrocarbons. The International Court of Justice finally determined the status of the island and the limits of the exclusive economic zones of Ukraine and Romania in 2009.
This time, it seems highly unlikely that the fate of Snake Island will be decided in court.