While Russian propaganda is still trying to popularize the “Z” symbol as a sign of support for the invasion of Ukraine, it has already become a new swastika. Russian troops are painting it everywhere not just to distinguish themselves from other forces but also to show that the territory is now controlled by Moscow. That’s what happened to Snake island which had been captured by Russians at the very beginning of the war. “Snake” is translated as “Zmiinyi” in both Ukrainian and Russian languages, thus the Kremlin’s newsmakers are still mentioning the symbolism that the “Operation Z” has started with capturing of the “Zmiinyi island” (pointing at the “Z” in the island’s name). Ironically, this island has also become a symbol of Ukrainian’s will to defend their land.
The famous phrase “Russian warship, go f*ck yourself” was said by one of Snake island defenders during the first days of war in response to the Russian surrender demand. Having become the most popular meme in Ukraine and abroad, the Ukrainian postal service launched a stamp featuring a Ukrainian soldier presenting the middle finger to the Russian cruiser Moskva. Just one day after the first issue of the commemorative stamp, the Moskva (considered the most powerful warship in the Black Sea region) was critically damaged by an explosion caused by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles near Snake island and sank.
However, that’s not the end of the story. Ukraine claims to have launched several counterattacks on the Russian units since their sea-borne landing on Snake island. All in all, several Russian ships, aircrafts and multiple armored vehicles have been destroyed with numerous casualties.
Whoever controls Snake island controls the land, sea and air in the north-west part of the Black Sea. Setting up a long-range air-defense system on the island would create a base of possible sea-borne operations with the goal of capturing the biggest Ukrainian sea port in Odesa and supplying Russian troops in Transnistria, thus making grounds for assault actions in the south of Ukraine. While Russia is setting up defenses near occupied Kherson and other key southern cities, it seeks for any opportunity to bypass Ukrainian defense lines in the south, to leapfrog, encircle and overrun the whole southern defense system of Ukraine.
Should Russians establish a solid control over Snake island, not a single container ship would be able to reach Odesa, thus disrupting Ukraine’s grain export chain which contributes around 10% of the world’s wheat.
Moreover, although Snake island’s area is only 0.17 km2 (0.066 mi2), it is located just 45 km (28 miles) away from the coast of Romania, which is part of NATO. Occupation of this island is a big step toward generating a strategic threat to the NATO eastern flank and particularly to Romania which makes its biggest port in Constanta work as a hub for the export of Ukrainian wheat.
By capturing the island, Russia might acquire an important part of the continental plateau of the Black Sea which is rich in hydrocarbons. Some energy companies claim that there is total confidence in the deposit of 10 billion tons of oil and 70 billion tons of natural gas near Snake island but the Black sea is one of the world’s most hydrocarbon-underrated regions in the world meaning that there is much more to explore.
Ukraine had made some progress in increasing gas production on the shallow north-western shelf. In 2013, its annual production grew to 1.65 billion m3. In 2015, the amount was to reach 3 billion m3. However, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula – it also seized 80% of the drilling rigs. Ukraine lost the opportunity to produce hydrocarbons in a number of deposits to decrease its energy dependence on Russia.
While the EU is looking for opportunities to replace Russian hydrocarbons, some experts believe the Black Sea region may become a new source of natural gas and oil with their total reserves being unknown. Securing Snake island is the key to supplying the Black Sea resources via the Ukrainian gas transmission system which accounts for one third of the Russian gas supply to Europe and is going to be left without any gas transit very soon.
Kyiv is yet to put a lot of effort into regaining control over Snake island. We are to hear a lot about this island in the following weeks as soon as the Ukrainian army handles more western arms. Liberating Zmiinyi island by the armed forces of Ukraine can become a true “Operation Z” for securing Ukrainian defense and economy.