Inside Ukraine's special forces mission to liberate Snake Island

A Ukrainian special forces unit found that ‘Poseidon was on our side’ as it spearheaded the celebrated liberation of Snake Island within range of Russia’s Black Sea firepower.  

Commandos in a task force from the elite 73rd Naval Centre of Operations took advantage of a storm to ‘vanish’ after the daring combined mission to reclaim the remote outcrop.  

The operators — considered Kyiv’s equivalent of the US Navy Seals or the UK’s Special Boat Service — landed in a dawn operation after making their way past the bodies of Russian soldiers which had been chewed by sea creatures, a senior Ukrainian officer told this week.  

The island passed into the nation’s folklore after Ukrainian border guards were given an ultimatum to surrender by the Russian crew onboard the Moskva missile cruiser.

One of the defenders famously replied: ‘Russian warship, go f*** yourself.’  

Vladimir Putin’s troops subsequently captured the strategically valuable point, also known as Zmiinyi Island, on the first day of the full-scale invasion before being driven out by the defenders.  

Lieutenant Colonel Oleksandr Kindratenko, spokesperson for Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces (SOF), told that the liberators still faced a gamut of threats even after the Russians left on the eve of the mission. ‘Snake Island was important for us from a strategic point of view,’ he said.   

‘The 73rd SOF Naval Centre was not the only unit which was involved in liberating the island. They worked closely and planned it in concert with other components of the Defence Forces. A task force from the centre which was involved in the operation prepared meticulously, working through all the possible scenarios. The very first task was not only to get to the island but to clear it from the Russians.’

The Russian troops deserted the 100-acre island, which lies around 30 miles off Ukraine’s southern coast, after mining the approaches and abandoning hardware including surface-to-air missiles.  

‘Let’s also not forget that the island is in range of almost all Russian firepower including the Black Sea Fleet assets and missile systems in Crimea,’ Lt Col Kindratenko added.

Moscow claimed the departure on June 30 last year was a ‘goodwill gesture’ but it came after Kyiv had launched months of artillery, air force, drone and missile strikes on invasion forces located on and around the island. This included the sinking of the Moskva warship, the flagship of Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet, in an audacious strike using two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles.  

Russian troops found themselves increasingly exposed on the island, which has strategic value as a gateway to the southern port of Odesa and the Danube River Delta. 

The operation began at dawn to make the task force less visible to the enemy.

‘The SOF task force approached as close as possible by boats and then divers used underwater vehicles to approach the coast and clear underwater mines and booby traps,’ Lt Col Kindratenko said.

‘Then the Ukrainian seals landed and with the help of deminers from the infantry made their way across the island and installed flags.

‘One of the commanders who took part in the operation said that when they approached underwater they saw the bodies of Russian soldiers who had been chewed by sea creatures.’ 

The 73rd’s divers, also known as combat swimmers, used specialist equipment to check for anti-ship and anti-landing mines. Having cleared a safe passage for the rest of the task force to follow, engineers then landed on the abandoned ground to clear further mines and traps.  

The landing party raised flags on the island, including the 73rd’s seahorse-and-dagger standard, as the group conducted tasks including reviewing the area and the enemy equipment left behind. 

Lt Col Kindratenko told that Russian forces responded with air strikes but were unable to disrupt the mission as the SOF operatives used an incoming storm as cover to slip away.

‘Of course, just after landing, the Russians used aviation and cruise missiles to strike the islands and try to destroy boats,’ he said. ‘But Poseidon was on our side. A storm had started and our guys used it to exfiltrate and vanish into the sea.’ 

One of the Ukrainian flags was raised above an abandoned Russian logistics vehicle bearing Z markings.  

Surface-to-air missile systems and a wrecked military helicopter were further discarded possessions belonging to the hastily-departed Russians. As the combined force performed tasks on the island Russian ships began moving in their direction, with a missile attack hitting the pier. The Ukrainian troops emerged unscathed from the mission, which also involved engineers from the 59th Separate Infantry Brigade, fighters from the GUR MO (military intelligence service) and the 801 Separate Squadron of the Ukrainian Navy.

The liberation of the island is one of Kyiv’s biggest symbolic wins since Russia began the all-out invasion 18 months ago — but it also secured a valuable strategic asset.

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A military intelligence officer who spoke to CNN under the name ‘Shakespeare’ in December 2022 said the recapture had allowed the UN-backed Black Sea grain initiative to take place.

The agreement, which freed up millions of tonnes of food exports from blockaded Ukrainian ports, ran between July last year up until last week, when Russia pulled out of the deal.  

Moscow has followed up its withdrawal from the agreement with a barrage of air attacks on civilian port infrastructure, including grain stores, in and around Odesa.  

On July 8, Volodymyr Zelensky underscored the island’s significance in his country’s fight against Russian aggression when he made a poignant visit to mark 500 days of war.

The Ukrainian president laid a wreath and said that while it was only a small piece of land, the ‘place of victory’ was proof that his country would regain all of its territory.

On the battlefield, the 73rd is continuing its secretive operations as Ukraine’s counter-offensive continues in at least three sectors of the eastern front.

On Wednesday, Zelensky used his nightly video address to praise troops for recapturing the village of Staromaiorske in the occupied Donetsk region.

The apparent breakthrough came ahead of fierce fighting in the south-east on Thursday as Kyiv launched what an unnamed US official said was a major push.

Specialising in maritime, amphibious and riverine environments, the elite naval unit remains active in the Black Sea and along the Dnipro river.

‘Their task is to use operations on water in order to destroy enemy’s assets or conduct reconnaissance deep to the enemy’s rear,’ Lt Col Kindratenko said. ‘But some units of the Centre are also involved in fighting on land and supporting other units of the Ukrainian Defence Forces.’ 

Videos posted on the 73rd’s social media include one filmed by an operator on a GoPro as he cleared a Russian trench in close-quarters combat before the infantry came in to take over the position.

Further dramatic footage shared on the channel during the all-out invasion shows the unit using two small boats in a raid on an island in the Dnipro river. Backed by drones, the assault team is shown firing from machine guns mounted on the vessels while travelling at high speed towards Russian positions.

The ‘professionalism and skill’ of Ukraine’s SOF was highlighted last month by a combat rescuer who has been providing first aid and tactical medicine skills to the 73rd. Fedir Serdiuk said the elite troops were aiming to ‘win by being better’ by using all-round battlefield skills on high-risk assignments. 

Senior Ukrainian officers have previously told that the heroism of many of the missions will only become public knowledge after their homeland secures victory.

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