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Snake Island Ukrainians are alive as prisoners, says Russia; but are they lying?

A Ukrainian soldier (Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/Wikimedia Commons)
February 28, 2022

Russia is claiming that a group of Ukrainian State Border Guards who were initially believed killed at the small outpost on Snake Island last week are actually alive but were taken as prisoners. Ukrainian officials are now starting to share the belief that the Snake Island defenders are alive, but it’s not yet clear if Russia is telling the truth.

On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said a contingent of just 13 members of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine (SGBS) stationed on Zmeiny Island (also known as Snake Island) were killed after refusing an order from a Russian warship to surrender. An audio recording of the Russian order for the Ukrainian guards to surrender caught viral attention on Thursday after the defenders of the small island outpost told a Russian warship “go fuck yourself.”

Following their response, Snake Island was reportedly bombarded with naval guns and airstrikes and Ukraine’s contact with the island was lost, contributing to the belief that its defenders had all been killed.

After initially being reported dead by the Ukrainian side, Russia’s state-run TASS News Agency reported on Friday that it had captured 82 Ukrainian defenders around Snake Island after they “laid down their weapons and voluntarily surrendered.” The Russian side said the Snake Island defenders had been taken to Sevastopol, in Russian-occupied Crimea, and made to sign written vows not to fight against Russia in the future.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said once the captive Snake Island defenders signed the vows, they would be returned home.

In an official statement on Saturday, the Ukrainian SBGS said, “We have strong beliefs that all Ukrainian defenders of Zmiiniy Island may be alive.”

In a subsequent post on Monday, the Ukrainian Navy said “We are very happy to learn that our brothers are alive and well.” While expressing their belief that the Snake Island defenders may be alive, the Ukrainian Navy said the Russian side was trying to “twist” the story to criticize the Ukrainian side for believing the island’s defenders had died.

“Russian propaganda is trying to twist the ‘news’ that the Ukrainian authorities have ‘forgotten’ and ‘buried’ their subordinates,” the Ukrainian Navy said.

The Ukrainian Navy noted a civilian vessel had tried to reach the island but was also captured by Russian forces, which further complicated Ukraine’s efforts to determine what happened to the island’s defenders.