Ukrainian forces have raised the country’s flag on Snake Island, a strategic and symbolic outpost in the Black Sea that Russian troops retreated from last week after months of heavy bombardment.
“The military operation has been concluded, and … the territory, Snake Island, has been returned to the jurisdiction of Ukraine,” Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern military command, told reporters.
Ukraine has considered control of the island as a critical step in loosening Moscow’s blockade on its southern ports.
However, it was not clear if troops would seek to re-establish a permanent presence there, as it is dangerously exposed to bombardment.
On Sunday, a military official told the Guardian the area of the Black Sea around Snake Island was still a “grey zone”, meaning that, technically, the Ukrainians did not intend to bring their forces back.
Snake Island became known internationally when Russia first captured it in February. A Ukrainian soldier posted on the island told an attacking Russian warship to “go fuck yourself”, the phrase that has since become one of the most popular Ukrainian slogans of resistance.
The Ukrainian postal service issued a stamp showing a Ukrainian soldier giving the finger to the Russian cruiser Moskva, which was later sunk. Since Russia took control, Ukrainian troops have attempted to retake it several times.
Russia claimed it had pulled out of the island on Thursday as a “gesture of goodwill” to show it was not obstructing United Nations attempts to open a humanitarian corridor allowing grain to be shipped from Ukraine.
A Russian military attack of the town of Serhiivka, near Odesa, on Friday has been interpreted by Ukrainian troops as payback for Russian troops being forced from Snake Island the day before.
At least 21 people, including two children, died in the attack after two Russian missiles struck a multi-storey block of flats and a recreation centre.
“The occupiers cannot win on the battlefield, so they resort to vile killing of civilians,” Ivan Bakanov, the head of Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, said. “After the enemy was dislodged from Snake Island, [they] decided to respond with the cynical shelling of civilian targets.”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymr Zelenskiy, said that although the pullout did not guarantee the Black Sea region’s safety, it would “significantly limit” Russian activities there. “Step by step, we will push [Russia] out of our sea, our land, our sky,” he said.
Kyiv accused Russia on Saturday of dropping incendiary white phosphorus on Snake Island. Ukrainian personnel were not present at the time of the attack and, according to military experts, the Russians used it to burn the weapons and ammunition left there before their retreat.