Ukrainian forces have hoisted the country’s flag on Snake Island, a strategic and symbolic outpost in the Black Sea that Russian troops have been retreating from since last week after months of heavy bombardment.
“The military operation is over, and … the territory, Snake Island, has been returned to the jurisdiction of Ukraine,” Natalia Humenyuk, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Military Command, told reporters.
Ukraine considers control of the island an important step in easing Moscow’s blockade of its southern ports.
However, it is not clear whether Ukrainian troops will want to re-establish a permanent presence there, as it faces dangerous bombings.
On Sunday, a military official told the Guardian that the Black Sea region around Snake Island was still a “gray area”, meaning that, technically, the Ukrainians did not want to withdraw their forces.
Snake Island became internationally known when Russia first occupied it in February. A Ukrainian soldier posted on the island told an attacking Russian warship to “fuck yourself”, a phrase that has since become the most popular Ukrainian slogan of resistance.
The Ukrainian Postal Service has issued a stamp showing a Ukrainian soldier pointing a finger at a Russian cruiser Moscow, which later sank. Ukrainian forces have tried to recover it several times since Russia took control.
Russia withdrew from the island on Thursday as a “gesture of goodwill” to show that it was not obstructing UN efforts to open a humanitarian corridor by allowing grain shipments from Ukraine.
A Russian military strike in the town of Serhivka, near Odessa, on Friday was interpreted by Ukrainian authorities as a payment to force Russian troops out of Snake Island the day before.
At least 21 people, including two children, were killed in the attack after two Russian missiles hit a multi-storey flat and a recreation center.
“The occupiers cannot win the battle, so they resort to heinous killings of civilians,” said Ivan Bakanov, head of Ukraine’s security service, SBU. “After removing the enemy from Snake Island, [they] “We have decided to respond with brutal fire on civilian targets.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that although the withdrawal did not guarantee security in the Black Sea region, it would “significantly limit” Russia’s activity there. “Step by step, we will push [Russia] Our sea, our land, our sky, ”he said.
Kyiv on Saturday accused Russia of dumping burning white phosphorus on Snake Island. Ukrainian personnel were not present at the time of the attack, and according to military experts, the Russians used it to burn weapons and ammunition left there before they retreated.