Here’s How Ukraine Could Devastate Russia’s Snake Island Garrison

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Ukraine’s tiny Snake Island lies astride the main shipping lane connecting Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest port, to the Mediterranean Sea via the Bosphorous Strait.

That’s why Russian troops bombarded and seized the island, 80 miles from Odesa, in the early hours of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine beginning in late February. And why, last month, Ukrainian forces waged a brief but intensive campaign targeting the island’s Russian garrison and the ships supplying it.

The next phase of the battle for Snake Island might come this summer, as the Ukrainian army and navy induct a pair of U.S.-made weapon systems that could prove decisive in an island fight: Harpoon anti-ship missiles and High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).

Harpoons could help the Ukrainians cut off the island from seaborne resupply. HIMARS could allow them to bombard the island at will.

The May skirmishes around Snake Island actually began in April, in a sense. On April 13, a Ukrainian navy battery armed with locally made Neptune anti-ship missiles holed the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, the most powerful air-defense ship in the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Moskva’s sinking compelled Black Sea Fleet commanders to pull their three frigates farther from the Ukrainian coast lest they also catch a Neptune or two.

That was a virtual invitation to the Ukrainian navy’s missile-armed TB-2 drones to assault Snake Island. In a heady 10 days, the drones destroyed the air-defenses on the island, including a ZU-23 cannon and a Strela short-range surface-to-air-missile launcher.

The drones also sank as many as four Raptor gunboats sailing around the island. The Russians in return shot down at least one TB-2.

When the Russians sent in reinforcements—a Raptor escorting a landing craft hauling a spare SAM launcher—the drones blew up the landing craft and destroyed the launcher. Another TB-2 strike destroyed a Russian Mi-8 helicopter while it was offloading troops.

The fight culminated on May 7. As a TB-2 watched a pair of Ukrainian air force Su-27 fighters streaked low over the island, dropping unguided bombs. Whatever Russian forces were left on the island after the drones did their work, the Su-27s apparently damaged.

The May phase of the island battle was costly for Russia, but not decisive. Even after losing Moskva and several smaller vessels, the Black Sea Fleet remains in control of the Black Sea. And the Russians apparently managed to ship a fresh Tor air-defense system to Snake Island. The Ukrainians at the same time shifted their attention to the fighting on land.

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But that might change. In late May, the U.S. Defense Department announced that the Danish government would donate to Ukraine a battery of truck-mounted launchers for Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

The Danish Harpoons apparently were ready for action by mid-June. On Wednesday, the U.S. Defense Department announced it would supply an additional two truck-mounted Harpoon systems.

A Harpoon has a range of a hundred miles or more, depending on the model, compared to the 80 miles or so a Neptune can travel. “Together with our Neptunes, the Harpoons are already forcing the enemy fleet to keep the distance to avoid the fate of the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva,” Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov stated last week.

Where the Ukrainians stage their Harpoons could determine their usefulness in a renewed fight over Snake Island.

The Neptune battery apparently is somewhere near Odesa. That makes sense, as defending the port against possible amphibious assault is one of Kyiv’s top priorities. But at 80 miles, a Neptune runs out of fuel. Russian ships resupplying Snake Island can avoid the Neptunes by sailing toward the island from the south.

However, there’s a sliver of coastal Ukraine extending south toward Romania that’s just 20 miles from Snake Island. With the Neptunes protecting Odesa, the Ukrainian navy in theory could stage some or all of its new Harpoons near the Romanian border—and deprive the Russian fleet of any safe approach to the island.

At the same time, the Ukrainian army could place some of the HIMARS it’s getting from the United States in the same area. The administration of President Joe Biden on June 2 pledged an initial four of the wheeled, six-round HIMARS. The first Ukrainian crews reportedly are just a week or so from completing their training on the high-tech launchers.

That doesn’t mean the HIMARS will be ready for combat this month. Even after initial training, it takes time to push a new weapon forward toward the front with all the necessary support for sustained operations. “In effect, Ukraine is wanting to field a new army with Western equipment, with unfamiliar processes, while fighting a war,” explained Mark Hertling, a retired U.S. Army general.

In time, however, the new launchers could have a real impact. A HIMARS can fire M30 rockets out to a distance of 44 miles—more than enough to reach Snake Island from Ukraine’s southwestern coast.

The Harpoons could cut off and starve the island garrison. The HIMARS then could suppress it, clearing the air space for another round of drone strikes or bombing runs by manned fighters. The Ukrainian armed forces probably don’t have the capacity to seize Snake Island—by, say, a heliborne landing—but they at least could prevent the Russians from making much use of the 50-acre rock.

To be clear, there are good reasons the Ukrainians won’t immediately renew their assault on Snake Island. Ukrainian troops are fighting for their lives in eastern and southern Ukraine. These soldiers need HIMARS yesterday—and probably are the priority in Kyiv’s planning.

That said, the Americans have promised to supply additional HIMARS in coming weeks and months. The Ukrainians also are getting from the United Kingdom three similar, but bigger, M270 launchers. If the Ukrainian army ever has any slack in its rocket force, the Russians on Snake Island could be in big trouble.

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