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Ukraine’s victory on Snake Island could be war’s key tipping point

Dominic Nicholls


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A satellite image shows smoke rising from Snake Island, off the coast of Ukraine, earlier this week. Photo: Planet Labs PBC/Handout via Reuters

A satellite image shows smoke rising from Snake Island, off the coast of Ukraine, earlier this week. Photo: Planet Labs PBC/Handout via Reuters

A satellite image shows smoke rising from Snake Island, off the coast of Ukraine, earlier this week. Photo: Planet Labs PBC/Handout via Reuters

Ukraine’s victory on Snake Island could be critical to reopening shipping lanes to grain trapped on the docks of Odesa.

It could also spell the end of Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to invade southern Ukraine.

Russia says it has lost interest in the island in the Black Sea – possibly as a result of Ukraine deploying French Caesar self-propelled artillery systems in Odesa – making any amphibious assault on Odesa harder.

Russian ownership of Snake Island made any attempt to export grain from Odesa almost impossible.

However, Ukrainian ownership of Snake Island – which it is expected to quickly populate with air and sea defences – has the potential to ease the global shortage of grain.

It will be dangerous work, but removing Russian mines from the sea will be possible if the threat from the remnants of Moscow’s Black Sea fleet is reduced.

Turkey is likely to be critical here. As custodian of the Montreux Convention, which controls access through the Bosphorus Strait in times of conflict, Ankara’s naval forces could take the lead in clearing the way and escorting out civilian ships.

Other Black Sea nations such as Romania and Bulgaria might also be involved. They are Nato members, of course, but not operating as a Nato mission.

Britain has ruled out being part of grain convoys.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, is currently in Madrid at a summit with other Nato leaders. It is possible that a deal on this very issue is being hammered out.

If Russia has given up the ambition of taking Odesa and the whole south coast of the country in a bid to strangle Ukraine’s economy, it is a huge development.

Wars can sometimes turn on the most seemingly insignificant factors.

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Time will show whether Russia’s decision to abandon Snake Island – which for the sake of analysis we will take at face value for now – is one such moment.

Snake Island is that tiny lump of rock in the Black Sea, 20km off the south-west tip of Ukraine and made famous in the early days of this war with the resolute call from the defenders for the Russian warship shelling them to “go f***” itself.

The frigate in question, the Moskva, flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, was later sunk in one of the most stunning blows Ukraine has landed on its invader since the fighting started on February 24.

As the war has ebbed and flowed on land, the island has proved critical for both sides.

For all the many setbacks his forces have suffered and the highly doubtful claim this war was all about protecting the people of the Donbas all along, Vladimir Putin’s desire to turn the whole of Ukraine into a client state has never diminished.

Allowing Kyiv’s main economic lifeline to survive makes that task significantly more difficult.

With Snake Island in Ukrainian hands, the threat to Russia’s Black Sea fleet will go up, the risk of an amphibious assault on Odesa will go down, the chances of the Kremlin smashing Ukraine’s economy is reduced and Putin’s stranglehold over the provision of grain to the world’s poorest regions – and indeed food prices globally – is weakened, as will his economy be when prices settle.

Tactical actions can sometimes have strategic effects. Wars can be won or lost over the smallest details.

Whether that blasted chunk of rock in the Black Sea is one such detail will be revealed, probably sooner than later.

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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