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The Ukrainian air force’s best fighter jets just staged a daring raid on the Russian force occupying Ukraine’s strategic Snake Island.
The raid marks a significant escalation of Ukraine’s air campaign targeting the Russian garrison on the island in the western Black Sea, 80 miles south of Ukraine’s strategic port Odessa.
For at least a week now, Kyiv’s propeller-driven TB-2 armed drones have been waging a relentless defense-suppression campaign over and around Snake Island. The satellite-controlled drones with their 14-pound missiles have knocked out at least three air-defense systems on the 110-acre island as well as two Russian patrol boats and a landing craft along the shore.
Destroying the air-defenses, along with any naval vessels attempting to reinforce the tiny island—with its single pier, helicopter landing pad and dozen or so structures—cleared a path for the twin-engine, supersonic Su-27s to strike on or before Saturday.
A TB-2 was nearby, watching with its gimbal-mounted camera, as the single-seat Sukhois—the Ukrainian air force’s fastest interceptors—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 heavily damaged.
The raid is striking, and not just because the Ukrainian air force committed nearly a tenth of its remaining Su-27s to pull it off. The high-speed bombing also underscored the ongoing collapse of the Russian navy and supporting forces in the western Black Sea. Three weeks ago a Ukrainian anti-ship missile battery sank the cruiser Moskva, depriving the Russian Black Sea Fleet of its biggest warship and its most powerful air-defense asset.
Bitter ground fighting continues in eastern Ukraine, with Russian forces slowly advancing west of Izium while Ukrainian forces advance farther north around Kharkiv. Ten weeks into Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, the Russian army has yet to mount a sustainable offensive. But in the east, at least, the Russians aren’t actively losing the war. Yet.
At sea, however, the Ukrainians clearly have the upper hand—even though Kyiv’s tiny navy, having scuttled its flagship frigate in Odessa in order to prevent its capture, no longer has a single large warship. Instead, the navy along with the air force is waging war from land and air—and winning.
Snake Island is minuscule but it matters. Whichever country owns the island has a legal claim on many of the resources of the western Black Sea. Prior to the Russian invasion beginning on the night of Feb. 23, a small Ukrainian garrison defended the island.
A Russian fleet, led by Moskva, attacked the following morning. When the Russians demanded the Ukrainians’ surrender, a member of the Ukrainian garrison reportedly named Roman Hrybov heroically responded, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”
The Russians opened fire, killing some of the Ukrainians. A Russian landing force captured the survivors, including Hrybov. Moscow later swapped the captives for some Russians the Ukrainians had captured.
Russia moved to reinforce its troops on Snake Island. Landing craft hauled in a ZU-23 anti-aircraft gun and a Strela-10 surface-to-air missile system. Raptor-class gunboats patrolled the island perimeter. Moskva sailed farther off-shore.
Meanwhile on land, Ukrainian forces defeated a large Russian force driving toward Kyiv from the north. The war’s momentum shifted east and south. Moskva’s sinking by a pair of Neptune missiles on April 13 marked a turning point. Black Sea Fleet commanders pulled their surviving three frigates farther from the Ukrainian coast.
That was a virtual invitation to the Ukrainian navy’s missile-armed TB-2s to begin their assault on Snake Island. In a heady 10 days, the 1,400-pound drones destroyed the ZU-23 and the Strela and sank two Raptor gunboats. 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.
The poorly-led, weary—and shrinking—Black Sea Fleet and its supporting army forces no longer reliably can defend Snake Island. No later than Saturday, the Ukrainian air force concluded the air space was clear.
The Su-27s flew in low apparently from somewhere in western Ukraine, successfully avoiding whatever Russian air-defenses remain over the Black Sea and arriving unmolested over Snake Island. They popped flares and dropped their bombs, which triggered at least one major secondary explosion, indicating a direct hit on an ammunition dump or fuel tank.
Ukraine’s air force has lost more than a tenth of the planes it had before the war, including at least four of its three-dozen Su-27s. But supplies of spare parts from NATO countries have helped Ukrainian technicians to keep the remaining jets in flyable condition—and perhaps restore old, grounded airframes.
On April 19, the U.S. Defense Department claimed that the Ukrainian air force actually had more flyable planes than it did just two weeks prior.
Kyiv has put those planes to good use. Su-25 attack jets are back in action over the main front line in eastern Ukraine. Even the aging Su-24 swing-wing bombers are in the fight again after several of them got shot down in quick succession back in March. The Su-27s’ bold strike on Snake Island wasn’t just the next step in Ukraine’s weeks-long campaign to peel back the island garrison’s defenses—it was a statement.
That statement is this: the aging, out-gunned Ukrainian air force still is capable of mounting offensive operations. Indeed, right now it might be more capable of deep strikes than the Russian air force is, despite the latter’s massive advantage in airframes.
It’s unclear whether or when Kyiv intends to attempt a landing on Snake Island. To restore its pre-war economy, Ukraine eventually must regain control of the island. With the apparent capture of the Ukrainian fleet’s sole amphibious ship, a landing force might have to come by helicopter.
But that’s risky. Su-27s are fast. Helicopters are slow. Even in its degraded state, the Russian garrison on Snake Island might be capable of defeating a heliborne assault.
That could change, however. The Ukrainians clearly are determined to strip away Snake Island’s defenses. And they’re succeeding. As they gain control over the military conditions on and around the island, their next move increasingly becomes a matter of choice … and timing.