Russia pulls out of Snake Island

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I’m not sure if this will come as all that much of a surprise to anyone, but there has been another reshuffling of Russian military forces in Ukraine this week. This morning, the Russians pulled out of Snake Island, the port facility made famous by the Ukrainian soldiers who told a Russian warship to “go eff yourself.” Russia eventually overran the outpost and sent the Ukrainian troops to a prison camp in the eastern part of the country. Now Ukraine should be (mostly) free to retake the port. This has the potential to open up some renewed avenues for Ukraine to ship its grain out of the country, but there will be some complications in doing so. (Associated Press)

Russia on Thursday pulled back its forces from a Black Sea where they have faced relentless Ukrainian attacks, but kept up its push to encircle the last bulwark of Ukraine’s resistance in the eastern province of Luhansk.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said it withdrew its forces from the Zmiyinyy (Snake) Island off Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odesa in what it described as a “goodwill gesture.” It added that the pullout has demonstrated that “the Russian Federation wasn’t hampering the United Nations’ efforts to establish a humanitarian corridor for taking agricultural products from the territory of Ukraine.”

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of blockading Ukrainian ports to prevent the exports of grain, contributing to the global food crisis.

The Russians are saying that this withdrawal is a “goodwill gesture,” but I don’t imagine many people are buying that line. They’re also claiming that the pullout is intended to allow Ukraine to resume its agricultural exports. But in the same breath, they are insisting that the Black Sea is littered with Ukrainian mines, making the shipping lanes unsafe to use.

There seems to be little doubt that the real reason for pulling out of Snake Island is the fact that Russia is running low on troops, along with ammunition and other military resources. They are making progress with their offensive in the Donbas region, but it’s been slow going over the past several weeks. The port at Snake Island really hasn’t been of much use to them and they have regularly been attacked by Ukrainian forces there. They have probably determined that those troops could be put to better use on the eastern front.

Right now the Russian forces are working to encircle Lysychansk, in the Luhansk province. That’s the last outpost in the province that the Ukrainians still hold. They have also taken control of roughly half of Donetsk Province. If they can force the Ukrainian troops out of those remaining strongholds, they will effectively control the entire Donbas. That region is populated with a lot of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who remain loyal to Moscow and have been clashing with the Ukrainian military since at least 2014.

This isn’t great news for the Ukrainian government, obviously. Getting Snake Island back will not be much of a consolation prize if the Russians overrun the entire Donbas region. Once they establish full control and eject the Ukrainian military forces, Putin will very likely announce that the territory has been “reclaimed” and is part of Russia. The real question is whether or not that will look like enough of a “victory” for him and if he’ll be satisfied to simply man the borders and put an end to the rest of the military action.

I’ve long since given up on trying to predict what Mad Vlad will do in any given situation. I wouldn’t put it beyond him to simply declare victory and go home. But what will the western world do in response if that’s the case? He will have effectively seized part of another country and declared it to be his own. Is everyone else expected to simply accept this as the new state of affairs, drop all of the sanctions on Russia and pretend this never happened? That would certainly be an awkward ending to a terrible story.