Ukraine's Attacks on Snake Island Hint That Russia's Black Sea Fleet's Influence on the War May Be Over

(AP Photo / Ivan Sekretarev, File)

If there is one geographical feature of Ukraine that Putin’s War has moved to the forefront of people’s minds, it is Zmiinyi Island, also known as Serpent Island or Snake Island. It is a speck of rock in the Black Sea, some 20 miles from the mouth of the Danube, measuring about 700 yards by 700 yards, or 0.15 square miles. Snake Island leaped into the public consciousness on February 24 when two Russian ships, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva (see BREAKING. Russian Flagship Sinks While Being Towed to Port) and patrol boat Vasily Bykov demanded the surrender of the 13 Ukrainian border guards stationed on the island and received the epic response “Russian warship, go f*** yourself.”

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The Russians proceeded to fortify Snake Island with SA-15 Gauntlet surface-to-air missiles and close-range air defense in the form of ZS 23-2 guns and Strela missiles. They also based a few patrol craft at the island. If the Russians decided to deploy their S-300 there, it could change the shape of the conflict in southern Ukraine. The S-300 has a range of about 120 miles. That would prevent the Ukrainian Air Force from operating over Odesa or Ukrainian territory between Odesa and the Danube. This has become more worrisome as the possibility of Russia conducting an amphibious operation south of Odesa to outflank Ukrainian defenses and link up with Russian separatists in the Transnistria region of Moldova.

You can read my take on that operation in 10 Days Into Putin’s ‘New Phase’ of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, There Are Minor Advances but the Clock Is Ticking.

For the past week, we’ve seen the Ukrainians begin a deep shaping operation directed at Snake Island. “Deep” and “shaping” are not merely adjectives; they are terms of art. A deep operation seeks to disrupt uncommitted enemy forces. Depth can be defined in terms of distance or in the time it would take for the uncommitted forces to reach the battlefield. A shaping operation sets the conditions for success in the commander’s planned decisive operation.

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The operation started on April 30 with the Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) carrying out attacks on Snake Island’s close-range air defense systems.

That attack got rid of the immediate risk to the UCAVs. Then, on May 2, the UCAVs came for the patrol boats.

The UCAVs took out the SA-15 (the Russian name is TOR) and its Transporter-Launcher and Radar (TLAR) on May 6.

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On May 7, the Russians tried to replace the destroyed SA-15. The UCAVs were waiting.

Below is a collection of battle damage assessment (BDA) images.

 

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Not long after the landing craft was smoked, two Ukrainian Air Force SU-27s paid a visit to the island.

What does all of this mean? There are a couple of possibilities. The first one is that the Ukrainians intend to keep the island sterile. Without long-range air defense systems on Snake Island, its main purpose is to provide fixed air defense for Russian Black Sea Fleet ships operating out of Crimea. As the Russian Navy seems less than anxious to conduct operations near Ukraine, the garrison on the island would control about 9 miles of airspace that Ukraine would be able to avoid with no problem. Knocking out the defense systems does have the virtue of requiring substantial effort and risk on the part of Russia to keep the island garrisoned and supplied. That said, I’ve seen no previous indication that Ukraine is willing to focus this kind of attention on a target without a purpose.

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The second possibility is more interesting. Snake Island is about 170 miles from the Black Sea Fleet’s homeport of Sebastopol. The maximum range of the Neptune anti-ship missile is also 170 miles.

If the second option is on the table, then what we are looking at here is a shaping attack that is removing the ability of the Russians on Snake Island to resist a Ukrainian air assault operation in preparation for a deep attack neutralize the Black Sea Fleet.

A mixture of Neptune and British Brimstone missiles on Snake Island could neutralize the Russian Navy in the Black Sea. With suitable supporting air defense units on Snake Island and the Ukrainian coast, It would also open the area to Ukrainian air force operations. Assuming that the Ukrainians can sustain the garrison, it could become an unsinkable defensive position that could put paid to any attempt by Russia to conduct an amphibious operation or exercise naval power in the war in Ukraine.

 

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