Reclaiming Zmiinyi (Snake) Island: Moskva flagship, helicopters, boats, Bohdana howitzers and the battle for the island
“Guys, we have to split up, or we will all die here,” Bohdan Hotskyi, commander of the Ukrainian Border Guard post on Zmiinyi (Snake) Island said as he surveyed his unit’s hideout.
When the Moskva flagship fired one of the many salvos at the island on the afternoon of 24 February and Russian aircraft conducted another airstrike, all military personnel who had occupied the positions in Hotskyi’s vicinity squeezed into the hideout, which was obviously too small for them all.
There are no sizable hideouts on Zmiinyi, as it’s not that easy to bore into the rock. That’s why all of the hiding places are relatively basic, offering protection from debris but not from aerial bombs, which could easily kill everyone inside.
Hotskyi decided to split the soldiers up across several hideouts in order to make sure they don’t all get killed at once. The first three soldiers ran to another hiding place during a moment of respite. The next three – two young guys and an older man – followed suit.
The roar of an aircraft could be heard some thirty seconds later and the older man flung himself back into Hotskyi’s hideout.
“What are you doing?” Hotskyi asked, surprised.
“Well, the young ones, they got there, but by the time I got to the gates, there was an aircraft flying straight at me. I’m not going anywhere anymore. That’s it, commander. I’m staying with you,” the border guard said, visibly shaken; he sat down, as if to convey the finality of his decision.
And anyway, where could you run when you were surrounded on all sides by the sea and when the small plot of land which you might die for has suddenly become a conspicuous target?
The story of the occupation and subsequent liberation of Zmiinyi Island simply begs to be made into a Hollywood blockbuster.
It would be a historical action film about a bit of rock which turned out to play a crucial part in controlling an entire sea. It would also be a story about heroism and fate, about brute military force and incredible feats of ingenuity. In short, it would be a story that culminates in a scene in which a proud Ukrainian David confronts the Russian Goliath with an emphatic “Russian warship, go f**k yourself!”
“I am a Russian warship”: Russia captures Zmiinyi (Snake) Island
On 22 and 23 February, no one on Zmiinyi Island expected the war to come. While President Zelenskyy and his team were making last-ditch attempts to convince themselves and the rest of Ukraine that there would be no war with Russia, the island and its surroundings were entirely peaceful.
Bohdan Hotskyi, the commander of the border guard post on Zmiinyi, recalled in a conversation with Ukrainska Pravda that no suspicious activity by the Russian forces was detected on the eve of the full-scale invasion.
“Nothing much was happening then. I remember that a Russian military aircraft flew very low over us about two weeks before [the full-scale invasion], but nothing unusual had happened since,” Hotskyi recounts.
The war started on Zmiinyi around three in the morning on 24 February with an intercepted radio message from a Russian warship. This was not yet the message that has since become known around the whole world.
“Around three in the morning one of my subordinates reported that he intercepted the radio communications between a Russian warship and a civilian vessel which was sailing towards the island. The Russians said that naval mines had been planted all around Zmiinyi and suggested that the ship change its course. They had started to block civilian shipping in the area.
We didn’t know yet that the war had already started, but we realised we were in danger,” the commander of the border guards begins to reconstruct the events that took place on 24 February.
Hotskyi reported the intercepted conversation to his commanders in Izmail and started to contemplate his course of action.
There were a total of 80 military personnel on Zmiinyi:
- around 30 border guards;
- just over 40 marines from the 35th Marine Brigade;
- several soldiers from Ukraine’s Ground Forces and airmen from the Ukrainian Air Force.
In addition, several civilians were based in the village of Bile, the only officially recognised settlement on the island: a lighthouse keeper, his assistant and several essential service workers.
“We decided to sound the alarm. The marines got up. We didn’t want to admit that the war had started but we saw that they [the Russians] were planning something. Everyone was provided with weapons and assigned to different positions. Though we didn’t have particularly impressive weapons: we had no heavy weapons, just small arms, anti-aircraft guns, and that’s about it,” Hotskyi tells Ukrainska Pravda.
Ukrainian forces took up their defensive positions, but when the sun rose, turning the sea all around the island gold, there was no enemy in sight.
The Russians wouldn’t address the defenders of Zmiinyi Island until six in the morning. The voice of the “Russian warship” would first be heard on Channel 16, a marine radio frequency designated as an international distress frequency, after three long hours of waiting.
Ukrainska Pravda managed to obtain a full transcript of that first address:
“It has become evident that the United States will fight to the last Ukrainian. If your hands are not stained with blood, and your conscience is clear, you have every chance for a normal and honest life without participating in another fratricidal war in the interests of overseas instigators.
If you refuse to participate in the fratricidal war and choose the right side, then you will have the opportunity to live a good civilian life or continue your service in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. You will have a prospect of career growth and stable salary, you will be able to solve personal problems, get a good military pension in old age, and live in a big and united country.
Make the right decision, stay alive. To do so, you need to declare your consent on Channel 16 and follow our further instructions. Unload your weapons and cut off communication with your command.”
None of the defenders of Zmnyi Island was going to agree to any deals. But the atmosphere on the island at one point became very daunting.
It was difficult not just because of the realisation that the war had begun, but because of the unknown: what would it be like for them, a handful of people on a patch of land in the middle of the sea?
Every 15-20 minutes a voice from the receiver demanded that they surrender, but no enemies could be seen all the way to the edge of the sky. There was only a disturbing, tense line of the horizon, which used to be boundless and free, and now turned into an ever-narrowing line of siege. It was as if a distant Russian ship had harpooned the entire island through the radio and was now gradually pulling it towards itself.
After three hours of persuasion, the Russians turned to intimidation. Starting at 9:00, a completely different message sounded every 20 minutes:
“Soldiers on Zmeinyi Island [Russian pronunciation -ed.]! You are blockaded. You are within the range of our weapons. If you resist, you will be destroyed. Your chances of survival are zero. Think about your family and friends who are waiting for you at home alive.
It will be over soon, and you will continue your usual life. Make the right decision. To do this, you need to declare your intention to cooperate, turn off the radar equipment and walkie-talkies, line up and lay down your weapons.”
The change in tone coincided with the appearance of the first Russian vessel on the horizon – the Vasily Bykov, the newest patrol boat of the Russian Navy.
Around noon, the Vasily Bykov was joined by another ship. It was this ship that was sending out this endless stream of threats – the infamous Russian flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the missile cruiser Moskva.
“We were in position all day. No one knew what would happen. Once the Moskva appeared, things became worse on the one hand, but easier on the other.
Clearly, no one chooses their enemy, but when you at least know who you are up against, when you see the face of the enemy, it becomes a little easier. Because it is no longer the unknown. If there were fewer of them, it might have been more interesting, but they played the ‘trump card’ from the outset“, the commander of the Zmiinyi border guards recalls the impression the appearing ships gave.
The arrival of the ships changed not only the appearance of the horizon. Almost immediately after their arrival, the Russians used deck artillery to launch the first salvo on the island. The Vasily Bykov fired, but the projectiles did not reach any of their targets and fell into the sea not far from the steep coast of Zmiinyi Island.
At first glance, it may not seem very clear why the Russians arrived on two such powerful ships to fight 80 lightly armed soldiers for a piece of rock less than half the size of the Vatican City.
But if you look closely at where Zmiinyi Island is located on the map, it will become obvious that it is the key that locks or unlocks the entire Ukrainian sea.
“The distance to the Odesa Oblast coastline in a straight line is less than 40 kilometres in some places; if modern air defence equipment and missiles are placed on the island, it allows you to control the air and sea in the area stretching from the mouth of the Danube River to the city of Odesa and further along the coast. In fact, whoever controls Zmiinyi controls our part of the sea,” a high-ranking source in Ukrainian intelligence explains in a conversation with Ukrainska Pravda.
In addition, control over Zmiinyi Island would allow the Russians to plan amphibious landings in Odesa or Mykolaiv oblasts. It is very convenient to provide air defence cover for them from the island.
Fewer than a hundred Ukrainians, who had been ignoring demands to surrender for several hours, separated Russia from the fulfilment of this crucial task. On the first day of the invasion, the hitherto undefeated Russian army took this as outrageous.
Therefore, Russia moved quite quickly from persuasion to more convincing arguments: they used repeated artillery attacks, and when that did not work, attack aircraft took to the skies.
Sometime soon after lunch, the Russians began airstrikes on the island using Su-27 and Su-34 aircraft. Raid after raid, the Russians razed everything on the island to the ground for three hours. Moskva added fire from its guns.
Meanwhile, two evacuation boats that could take up to 20 people managed to get to Zmiinyi Island from the Ukrainian mainland. However only three civilians agreed to leave the island.
By the evening, the situation on the island had become completely unbearable. The shelling continued. The voice on the radio from the Moskva was becoming increasingly angry. They no longer promised “career growth”, but simply threatened elimination.
The Zmiinyi garrison was no less irritated. There were no casualties after the shelling. But the understanding that they were left alone with the “killer aircraft carrier” without a chance for help made the atmosphere on the island depressing.
It is not surprising that at some point, around 18:00, people’s nerves could no longer hold up, and all the anger and contempt that had accumulated during the day spilled out into the famous “message” to the Russian warship, which was destined to become one of the most uplifting slogans of this war.
“To be honest, we didn’t pay much attention to that conversation at the time. They [the Russians -ed.] once again demanded that we surrender. We swore at them. But there was so much going on that we somehow didn’t single out this response specifically. It was later that this conversation became so famous. At the time we were busy with other matters” Bohdan Hotskyi recalls. His subordinate border guard, who has not been named to this day (and not, as originally thought, a marine named Roman Hrybov), was the one who swore at the Moskva.
The recording of this conversation – made not on the island, but at the border guards’ headquarters on the mainland – ensured the “popularity” of this “message” and its becoming a catchphrase. Servicemen on the mainland used a walkie-talkie, through which they could hear all the conversations on Zmiinyi, and they were the ones who recorded on a phone a famous fragment of this conversation.
If you listen to the audio, which everyone in Ukraine has listened to more than once, then the whispering voice “what, and ‘go f*ck yourself’ also?”, belongs to the person who recorded it, and not to the author of the saying itself.
The record from Zmiinyi became available late in the evening on 24 February. However, the adviser to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Anton Herashchenko – in his careless manner of handling information – combined the real conversation of the Ukrainian defenders with the completely invented myth about the “12 fallen heroes on Zmiinyi”. This myth even made its way into President Zelenskyy’s speech later.
The truth about Zmiinyi Island was no less bitter. After another attack, about an hour after the Moskva cruiser famously faced brutal rejection, connections with the island were lost, and ships with Russian paratroopers besieged it. The whole garrison as well as the civilians were captured.
The myth about the fallen defenders of the island took another unexpected turn, which led to 21 people being captured.
“We gathered – three priests, two protesters, me and Leonid Bolharov, Vasyl Virozub, an orthodox priest, and Ivan Tarasenko, a paediatrician. We were told that Zmiinyi Island was attacked, our guys were killed so we should go there to take their bodies and bring them to Odesa. We are chaplains, these are our duties as well”, Oleksandr (Chokov), chaplain of the 35th Brigade, recounts.
He remembers that they were told about an agreement with the Russians that civilians and priests could enter the island and take the bodies. The team was even given special body bags.
On 26 February in the morning, the Sapfir, a rescue vessel, approached the island and was ordered to stop. Russian marines got on board, made everyone kneel and started inquiring about the vessel’s mission.
“I tell them that our mission is to recover the bodies of our soldiers. One of the Russians pulls out a mobile phone and shows me the video, which makes it clear that all our border guards and marines have been captured. I was happy they were alive. He goes: ‘So what is your mission? Oh, so you’re spies!’ Father Oleksandr tells us.
The priests and a doctor were taken off the vessel and then taken to the city of Sevastopol in Crimea, where they were questioned at the FSB guardhouse multiple times a day.
The Sapfir crew were taken there 11 days later. A hundred Russian soldiers resided on their vessel all this time.
A few days later, the prisoners of war from the Sapfir vessel were taken from Zmiinyi (Snake) Island in an Il-76 military plane first to a PoW camp in Belgorod Oblast in Russia, and then to a separate detention centre for the military in the town of Starii Oskol in Russia.
The first group of PoWs, including the Sapfir crew, would be swapped on 24 March.
Some of the captives, including Commander Hotskyi, would return to Ukraine after a big PoW swap in April. The priests were released from captivity separately from one another. The orthodox priest Vasyl was the last to be released; he returned to Ukraine in May.
Most Ukrainian prisoners of war have not yet returned to Ukraine.
Zmiinyi (Snake) Island – a trap for the occupiers. Sinking of the Moscow cruiser
As of the evening of 24 February, Zmiinyi Island was fully under Russian control. Russia thus created the line of control in the Black Sea area of Ukraine, which consisted of several important elements.
The first element was the so-called “Boiko’s oil rigs” [Yurii Boiko – a pro-Russian politician and former Ukrainian Minister of Energy accused of embezzlement disguised as buying oil rigs – ed.], which the Russians transformed from industrial objects into military ones by piling armaments and air defence systems there. Along with the besieged Zmiinyi Island, the oil rigs formed a line along the coast which enabled Russians to maintain full fire control over the Ukrainian coast.
The second important element of this occupied area was the floating citadel of the cruiser Moskva. Apart from its combat rocket and artillery power, the fleet’s flagship had another critically important function: anti-aircraft cover for the whole Black Sea fleet of the Russian Federation. It facilitated their manoeuvring capability and response speed.
But Russians did not realise that on Zmiinyi Island, they were trapped in the same way as Friedrich Paulus, the German field marshal, had been in Stalingrad. They besieged an object they could not control.
When the Russians brought their soldiers and military equipment to the island, they found themselves in the same situation as the Ukrainian defenders the day before – they were stranded alone at sea, totally dependent on supply lines and backup. Moreover, these lines were even longer for Russians.
Yet, Russians had the Moskva, which, with its presence alone turned separate locations scattered across the sea into a unified military system.
When the shock of the first few days of war had passed and it became clear that the “second army in the world” was suffering unexpected and humiliating losses in the north of Ukraine and on the Mykolaiv front, the Ukrainian troops started thinking of ways to take back control of the sea.
It would be impossible to do without Zmiinyi Island. And it would be quite challenging to take over the island if the cruiser Moskva were not destroyed.
This problem was solved on the night of 13 April. Ukrainian intelligence detected the Moskva in the sea. Kyiv sent a request to NATO reconnaissance in Europe to confirm that a certain object is in a certain square without specifying what object it is.
NATO intelligence, including an advanced American reconnaissance aircraft, the P-8 Poseidon, confirmed the location of the Moskva.
After verifying this information, Ukraine conducted one of the most brilliant military operations in its history.
A couple of Bayraktar drones distracted the Moskva cruiser air defence system while two Ukrainian anti-ship Neptune missiles provided by the Poseidon were launched at the location. Thus the Moskva warship ultimately reached the “destination” it had been sent to by the defenders of Zmiinyi Island back on 24 February.
It was a great loss for the Russians. After the Moskva sank, other vessels also moved away from the Ukrainian coast, out of the range of the Neptunes. Plans to conduct landing operations on the island collapsed.
But this is not the end. The moment the Moskva sank, Zmiinyi Island turned from a solid sea fortress back into a lonesome tower in the middle of the sea.
By that time, the Russians had brought a considerable amount of heavy armaments, including advanced Russian Buk and Tr anti-aircraft systems. In order to take over the island, Ukraine needed to put those out of order first.
In the sky, in the sea and on land: Ukraine fights for Zmiinyi (Snake) Island
First, Russian air defence, speedboats and manpower were destroyed with Bayraktar drones. The Ukrainian forces tried to strike Russian military equipment on the island almost every night, first using Bayraktar drones and then Ukrainian bombers.
Finally, on the eve of 9 May, Ukraine was ready to make a first attempt to liberate the island.
There was no order to take over Zmiinyi Island and hold it. To leave people there meant making them a target of missile and aviation strikes.
This is why, after previous aviation attacks by the Ukrainian forces and constant attacks with Bayraktar drones, Russia started to evacuate personnel from the island. Yet they were still coming there on speedboats to service the equipment which was left there.
Therefore, making the island unfit for use as a stronghold by the Russians had become the main goal of the Ukrainian operation.
The operational plan involved landing by sea and air at Zmiinyi Island, the destruction of all Russian equipment and, last but not least, a blockade of all bays capable of accepting Russian vessels and boats.
Obviously, Kyrylo Budanov, Head of Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence and Zelenskyy’s favourite advisor, has been instructed to plan and implement this adventurous project.
Helicopters and boats had to reach the island somehow in order to land there. So, the top priority was to completely destroy Russian air defence systems on the island.
As sources from the intelligence told us, Turkish-made Bayraktar UAVs succeeded in catching the moment right before the operation started, when the Russian Tor anti-aircraft missile system was off, and destroyed it. The road to the island seemed to be open.
On the night of 8-9 May, eight Ukrainian helicopters – four Mi-24s and four Mi-8s – headed for Zmiinyi. At the same time, a few small Hiurza-M armoured artillery boats were proceeding to the island by sea.
Another amphibious Mi-14 helicopter was moving along the coastline of Odesa Oblast. Its task was to ensure evacuation in case any of the assault participants should need it.
“Our [people – ed.] departed, arrived at the island and started working, but it turned out that the Russians had made up an unseen thing. We did not believe it until we saw the photos. Our forces smashed their air defence systems on the island, but they had disassembled the Tor anti-aircraft missile system in Crimea, tied it to the deck of some boat, and opened fire on us like that. So our soldiers had to go back,” one of UP’s contacts at Defence Intelligence, who is familiar with the course of the May assault on Zmiinyi, recollects.
The next day, the Ministry of Defence of Russia declared that they had killed more than 50 Ukrainian paratroopers, destroying several helicopters, Bayraktars and boats.
Ukrainian soldiers have also given different numbers of losses; some of them even started calling Budanov “a butcher” who “sacrificed soldiers to plant a flag on the island by the 9th of May [Victory Day – ed.]”.
However, UP’s sources in the highest intelligence circles recount that the Russian data is false, to put it mildly. As our sources state, Ukraine’s losses in this operation were approximately 10 people and a boat. All helicopters involved in assaulting the island returned to their bases, as per UP’s information. And, in a bitter twist of fate, a helicopter that served as a safety net and was piloted by Ihor Bedzai, Deputy Commander of the Naval Forces, was shot down by the Russians over Odesa Oblast.
That day, we did not manage to destroy all the equipment on Zmiinyi Island or to block the bays.
“But you cannot say that this stage of the island’s liberation was unsuccessful. We destroyed half of the equipment and got an understanding of how the island could be completely mopped up,” a source at Defence Intelligence reflects.
After that, the Russian Federation tried to conduct its own airborne operation and get a garrison back to the island. However, at least one helicopter was shot down in the process by a Ukrainian fighter jet exactly at the moment of landing.
The month following an unsuccessful Ukrainian assault was dedicated to developing another plan of liberating the island, taking into account new possibilities for the army.
At that moment, new Western artillery systems had just begun arriving in Ukraine, significantly expanding the capabilities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It was decided to oust the Russians from the island with massive missile and artillery strikes. Western 155-mm artillery could easily hit the island from the closest points of the coastline in the very south of Odesa Oblast, from where it is only 40 kilometres to Zmiinyi Island in some places.
Parallel to this, on 20 June, Ukrainian rockets attacked the so-called Boiko towers, from which Russia threatened the Ukrainian shore. As a result of precise rocket strikes, three out of four towers, along with weapons kept there, were destroyed.
Within 10 days, on the morning of 30 June, Ukraine had carried out a massive rocket and artillery attack on Zmiinyi Island itself. Photos that went viral that day showed the island wrapped in grey smoke and fire.
That was the moment when Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, reported that a Ukrainian-made self-propelled 155-mm Bohdana artillery unit had been used. There was only a single one of these, and had not yet been added to the armoury of Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
“It is obvious that the Bohdana was not a decisive factor, but it did its task, and did it very well,” UP’s sources in the army state.
That day, after a little more than four months of occupation, the Russians evacuated the rest of their soldiers and fled Zmiinyi Island.
The Russian Defence Ministry, in its published statement, called its forced retreat “a goodwill gesture“, fully admitting the impossibility of controlling the island.
Instead, in one week, the Armed Forces of Ukraine conducted an effective underwater operation and created a route to the Island with the forces of the legendary Mykolaiv-based 73th Marine Centre of the Special Forces. After that, bomb disposal experts cleared the mines, and Ukrainian soldiers were able to reach the island and return a Ukrainian flag to this distant part of Ukraine.
Remnants of completely destroyed Russian equipment can be seen in a video from the island; as estimated by the Ukrainian soldiers, there were more than 20 units.
“After liberating Zmiinyi, Ukraine has made possible a ‘grain corridor’, which would not have happened if we had not taken back the island and destroyed the Moskva warship. In addition, Ukraine has put an end to the possibility for Russia to control the coastlines of Ukraine and of a few neighbouring countries,” UP’s source in Defence Intelligence summed up.
The island’s story is not over yet. As of September, according to information from the Graty news outlet, 48 Zmiinyi defenders are still being held in Russian captivity.
As people close to prisoner swap negotiations tell Ukrainska Pravda, the topic of the island is so irritating to the Russians that they are constantly removing the names of those who they captured there at the beginning of the full-scale war from the lists of prisoners to swap.
However, Ukraine succeeded in setting free one crewman from Zmiinyi on 29 October. Therefore, there is hope that the story of the island will have 47 more happy chapters.
Roman Romaniuk, Ukrainska Pravda
Translation: Olga Loza, Oxana Hart, Polina Kyryllova, Myroslava Zavadska
Editing: Monica Sandor