The Ukrainian army’s rarest artillery played a pivotal role in finally driving Russian troops off strategic Snake Island in the western Black Sea.
Official video from the defense ministry in Kyiv depicts the 2S22 truck-mounted howitzer—only one of which is known to exist—firing on Russian forces on the tiny island 80 miles south of Ukraine’s strategic port, Odesa.
Operators of a TB-2 drone corrected the fire, walking the 155-millimeter-diameter shells onto the island and igniting several secondary fires. The surviving Russians reportedly fled the island in small boats.
The Russian evacuation marks a new phase in the back-and-forth battle for Snake Island, a treeless, 570-acre rock that lies astride the main shipping lane between the Bosphorous Strait and Odesa.
Whoever controls the island, which legally is part of Ukraine, can impede—or protect—cargo ships carrying Ukrainian grain to the global market. Russian forces led by the missile cruiser Moskva, then the most powerful air-defense ship in the Black Sea Fleet, bombarded and seized the island on the first full day of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine on Feb. 24.
It took months—and new tactics—for the Ukrainians finally to scrape the Russians off the island. Kyiv’s forces combined drones, missiles, fighters and artillery to make Snake Island untenable for Moscow’s forces.
The sole 2S22 dealt the decisive blow. But the gun can’t protect Ukrainian troops on the island. As long as the Black Sea Fleet controls the waters around Ukraine, Snake Island might remain a shell-pocked no-man’s-land.
The Kramatorsk Heavy Machinery Plant, in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, built the 2S22 around five years ago.
The 28-ton 2S22 has a major advantage over the Ukrainian army’s roughly 1,800 ex-Soviet guns. The new howitzer fires NATO-standard 155-millimeter shells rather than Soviet-standard 122-millimeter or 152-millimeter shells—allowing it to tap into foreign ammunition stocks.
Production problems at factories in Ukraine mean the Soviet calibers are in ever-shorter supply. On the other hand, there are a dozen countries that can supply—and are supplying—NATO-size shells by the hundreds of thousands.
As a Russian army attacked across Ukraine along multiple fronts, the 155-millimeter gun, mounted on a six-by-six KrAZ-6322 truck, narrowly escaped destruction—by Kramatorsk’s own employees.
Officials at the Kramatorsk factory prepared to blow up the 2S22. “Destroy it so that [it] does not go to the enemy,” is how Ukrainian politician Serhiy Pashynskyi described the officials’ thinking.
But the Russian offensive met stiff resistance and ground to a halt—first in the south, then in the north. For the 2S22, the risk of capture faded.
The 2S22 had fired a few rounds in testing back in October. It apparently worked just fine. So in early May, the Ukrainian army packed up the gun and deployed it along the front, presumably somewhere in the east. Pashynskyi circulated videos depicting the 2S22 firing at Russian targets spotted by drones.
Two months later the 2S22 had redeployed to southwest Ukraine, which at its closest point is just 20 miles from Snake Island—well within the 2S22’s 25-mile range with standard ammunition.
The Ukrainian navy and air force had spent months softening up the island before the 2S22 opened fire. On April 13, a Ukrainian navy battery armed with locally made Neptune anti-ship missiles holed and sank Moskva.
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-2s 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 escalated 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.
Even after losing Moskva and several smaller vessels, the Black Sea Fleet still managed to ship a fresh Tor air-defense system to Snake Island. But sustaining the island garrison was growing riskier for the Russians. On June 17, a Ukrainian Harpoon anti-ship missile—likely an ex-Danish example—sank the auxiliary Spasatel Vasily Bekh, apparently while the vessel was making a run to Snake Island.
The writing was on the wall for the Russians on the island. The 2S22 took up position near the beach. A TB-2 posted up overhead. The 155-millimeter shells rained down.
The Kremlin tried to spin its defeat on Snake Island as a sign of Russia’s magnanimity. “On June 30, in a goodwill move, Russia’s armed forces completed their tasks on Snake Island and withdrew the garrison stationed there,” Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov stated.
Russian forces quitting the island removes an obstacle to international efforts to create a “humanitarian corridor” for Ukrainian grain exports that, at present, are under Russian blockade, Konashenkov said. But the Russian fleet still controls the Black Sea—and Moscow hasn’t otherwise moved to unblock grain ships sailing from Odesa.
Konashenkov’s statement is pure propaganda. The truth is the Ukrainians defeated the Russians on Snake Island after months of hard fighting.
That doesn’t mean Kyiv’s forces are going to retake the island. Snake Island’s facilities—power, water and shelter—are in ruins. The Black Sea Fleet could lob missiles at the rocky islet from hundreds of miles away and there’s nothing Ukraine’s drones and howitzers could do to stop it.
Don’t expect Ukrainian troops to land on Snake Island unless, and until, they further degrade the Black Sea Fleet.