The sight of the Ukrainian flag flying over Snake Island, just days after the Russians retreated from it, is hugely symbolic. Placing the flag was expected, and naturally it made headlines. But the mission behind it was less clear.
Now details are emerging from Ukrainian sources.
On the night of July 7 2022, Ukraine’s elite 73rd Naval Special Purpose Center approached Snake Island. The combat swimmers were driving underwater vehicles.
The divers covertly surveyed the coastal zone, 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 of the U.S. Navy SEALs or British SBS.
Details of the underwater vehicles employed has not been reported. The unit is known to operate certain sophisticated Western types. But like many special forces units their inventory is shrouded in secrecy.
These vehicles will be wet submarines, meaning that the crew is exposed to the water around them. Therefore the divers have to wear breathing apparatus while submerged. Some types, termed swimmer delivery vehicles (SDVs) carry the divers inside. Others, called DPDs (diver propulsion devices) tow the divers behind. Both arrangements have their advantages, and both extend the range and endurance of the divers. They also make it possible to carry additional equipment. Modern Western types in Ukrainian service benefit from relevant navigation and commutations equipment.
The SOF (special operations forces) operators were not alone. Combat engineers of 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 any mines or booby traps. They cleared a passage for the rest of the force.
As well as planting several Ukrainian flags, the small force gathered intelligence on the Russian equipment there. The island has been hit repeatedly by both sides, but some equipment remains.
Ukrainian sources report that Russian warships begun approaching the island while the troops were still there. Having completed their mission, the Ukrainian force withdrew. Then the Russian side launched a missile attack on the island, reportedly hitting the pier. It is possible that they were intending to destroy equipment to prevent it falling into Ukrainian hands.
Russia claims that it hit and killed some of the Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian side says that its force returned to base unscathed.