It is remote, inhospitable, windswept and largely uninhabited, but it has been fought over for centuries. Legend has it that the rocky outcrop in the Black Sea was created by the sea god Poseidon as a home for the greatest of all Greek warriors: Achilles. And just like the demigod, the small, cross-shaped island has seen its share of wars. Today, the tiny piece of land is known as Snake Island (Zmiinyi Island), and on Monday Ukrainian forces raised the country’s flag there once again after seizing the island back from Russian occupiers, driven away after months of heavy bombardment.
The fight for Snake Island has strategic value, but most important it is of national significance for all Ukrainians, especially in their country’s darkest hour, with their back to the wall in Donbas. However, in the tiny fishing village of Vylkove, on the Ukrainian side of the Danube River and the closest inhabited area to the Island, the battle to regain control over this outcrop has upended the lives of inhabitants.
The intense fighting on the island between Russian and Ukrainian forces, which began on the first day of the war, has shaken the homes of villagers, in some cases opening cracks in their walls. In Vylkove, 31 miles from Snake Island, shock waves from blasts on the open sea, with nothing to absorb them, have reached the coastline.
Yuri Suslov, 43, has been fishing the waters of the Black Sea since he was a boy. “This is a very quiet town, so when they start bombing Snake Island it was very loud around here,” he said.
Yuri knows Vylkove’s channels like the back of his hand. On his boat, he navigates the narrow waterways that in the summer months resemble those of Vietnam or Cambodia. Reeds and pile dwellings line the edge of the river as children play in the water. Every family in Vylkove has a boat, the city’s principal means of transportation.
Today, Vylkove’s waterways that flow to the mouth of the Danube, giving access to the Black Sea in the direction of Snake Island, are blocked by military checkpoints, with the coast patrolled day and night.
“It’s a scary situation, but I don’t think the Russians are going to attack us,” said Yuri. “You know why? Because we are too close to Romania, and if they accidentally hit Romania, it will be Nato war.’’
Svitlana, 34, a tourist guide in Vylkove, said: “It was horrible. The planes were flying over our heads, and the blasts were very loud. Some windows cracked in older homes with wooden frames.”
But worse than the blasts has been the economic impact of the fight over Snake Island. Because of the conflict, fishing is forbidden – a nightmare for a town known as the “Ukrainian Venice” that survives almost exclusively on fishing.
“This town belongs to the fishermen and they were not allowed to even sail out,” said Svitlana. “And fishing is their main source of income, so they suffered great financial losses. In addition, almost 25% of local residents were involved in tourism. Some were offering boat rides, some owned small tourist firms, some worked as guides. And now it’s impossible. As a result, about 80% of locals who were involved in water tourism or fishing are suffering. My husband was fishing. And now we are out of business. We have no income.”
Snake Island, in the administrative division of Vylkove, became known internationally in February, when Russia first captured it, after a Ukrainian soldier posted on the island told the attacking Russian warship: “Go fuck yourself”.
The phrase has become one of the most popular Ukrainian slogans of resistance, with the Ukrainian postal service issuing a stamp showing a Ukrainian soldier giving the finger to the Russian cruiser Moskva, which was later sunk. Since Russia took control, Ukrainian troops have attempted to retake the island several times.
Despite the uncertainty of Snake Island’s future, it is closely linked to Vylkove and its residents. But very few people have been able to visit it, partly because of the enduring territorial dispute between Ukraine and Romania over who is its rightful “owner”.
“There were no official tourists on Snake Island,” said Svitlana. “You could get a permission from the border guards and go there, but frankly it was quite complicated and expensive.”
The only people authorised to visit the island were military personnel on patrol, researchers, and a handful of fortunate divers who would regularly survey the area to admire the 49 species of fish inhabiting the waters and wrecks of military vehicles and vessels, such as the Soviet submarine “Pike” which lies at a depth of 35 meters, a reminder that this place has been a regular theatre of war.
Vladlen Tobak, diving instructor and founder of a diving school in Odesa, said he could not count how many times he had been to the island. “There was one time when I spent there an entire season with a scientists’ crew. It is probably the best diving spot in Ukraine. There’s a huge number of sunk objects, so wreck-diving there is No 1 in Ukraine. There are some prominent discoveries – for instance, there is a galley, or as we call it ‘amphora carrier’, fourth century BC, over 3,000 amphoras. And now the historians are really worried about that object’s fate.’’
Today the sea around Snake Island is infested with thousands of mines dropped by the Russians, a problem many believe will further impede a return to normality in Vylkove, even if for now Snake Island is once again in Ukrainian hands.
A Ukrainian official, speaking on terms of anonymity, said authorities were working on a de-mining plan using robots, but it would be months before it could be put into operation.
Russia claimed it had pulled out from the island as a “gesture of goodwill” to show it was not obstructing UN attempts to open a humanitarian corridor allowing grain to be shipped from Ukraine.
A Russian military attack on Friday on the town of Serhiivka, near Odesa, has been interpreted by Ukrainian authorities as payback for Russian troops being forced from Snake Island the day before. At least 21 people, including two children, died after two Russian missiles struck a multi-storey block of flats and a recreation centre.
The strategic importance of Snake Island lies not only in its proximity to the mouth of the Danube, a position that transforms the small piece of land into a natural fortress to impede the enemy from reaching the second-longest river in Europe and an important commercial hub, but also in the fact that controlling it implies holding a military stronghold in the Black Sea.
An adviser to Ukraine’s interior ministry, Vadym Denysenko, told Ukrainian TV that Snake Island’s recapture was a “huge victory”. He said that after Ukraine destroyed Russia’s Moskva warship, the Russians wanted to turn Snake Island into an anti-aircraft defence hub and use it to control the entire western part of the Black Sea and launch a land invasion.
“Now the Russians cannot do anything in this area of the sea, except, unfortunately, shell Ukrainian cities with missiles from their ships,” Denysenko said.
In Vylkove, people know very well that their fate is linked to that of Snake Island and that Ukraine has won this battle – but not the war. “Many people think that Snake Island is just a useless rock in the middle of the sea,” said Svitlana. “But we who live here, a few miles from it, know very well that this is not the case. And for months we have been paying the price for our proximity to the island. We know that until the war is over, the Russians will try to take it back.”