The view of the Ukrainian flag flying over snake island, just days after the Russians withdrew, is extremely symbolic. The raising of the flag was expected, and naturally it made headlines. But the mission behind it was less clear.
Now the details are emerging from Ukrainian sources.
On the night of July 7, 2022, the Ukrainian 73rd Naval Elite Center approached Snake Island. Combat swimmers drove underwater vehicles.
The divers secretly probed the coastal area, looking for anti-submarine and anti-landing mines. After establishing a safe passage, they gave the signal to the boats of the main group.
The 73rd Naval Special Purpose Center is the special forces unit of the naval infantry (marines). Often referred to as Spetsnaz, they are broadly equivalent to US Navy SEALs or British SBS.
Details of the underwater vehicles used were not reported. The unit is believed to exploit some sophisticated Western types. But like many special forces units, their inventory is shrouded in secrecy.
These vehicles will be wet submarines, meaning the crew is exposed to the water around them. Therefore, divers must wear breathing apparatus when submerged. These vehicles extend the autonomy and endurance of divers and allow the carrying of additional equipment. They also benefit from the latest relevant navigation and switching equipment.
SOF (Special Operations Forces) operators were not alone. Combat engineers from the 59th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade and Navy personnel from the 801st Separate Detachment also landed. The engineers were the first to land on the island, to deal with possible mines or traps. They cleared a passage for the rest of the force.
In addition to planting several Ukrainian flags, the small force gathered intelligence on Russian equipment there. The island has been hit several times by both sides, but some equipment remains.
Ukrainian sources report that Russian warships began approaching the island while troops were still there. Having completed their mission, the Ukrainian force withdrew. Then the Russian side launched a missile attack on the island, which would have hit the pier. It is possible that they intended to destroy equipment to prevent it from falling into Ukrainian hands.
Russia claims that it hit and killed some of the Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian side claims that its forces returned to the base unscathed.