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Ukraine’s Snake Island defenders released in prisoner exchange with Russia

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

19 Ukrainian service members who were assigned to help defend Snake Island and who were thought killed shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last month, were released in a prisoner exchange between the two nations last week.

On Thursday, the Ukrainian Parliament announced, “The first exchange of war hostages occurred on [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s] order. Additionally, today, #Ukraine exchanged 11 Russian sailors we rescued from a sunken ship near #Odesa to 19 Ukrainian sailors (authors of the legendary phrase ‘Russian warship go f*** yourself’).”

“Our sailors will return home from the rescue ship ‘Sapphire,’ which was captured by the Russian occupiers while trying to withdraw Ukrainian troops from the #Zmiiny island,” Ukraine’s parliament added. “Under the exchange terms, the lifeboat will also be returned to #Ukraine and sent to a Turkish port.”

An audio recording was released during the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which a Russian warship demanded Ukrainian forces defending Zmeiny Island (also known as Snake Island) surrender. In the audio recording, the Snake Island defenders replied with, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”

The Ukrainian side initially thought the Ukrainian forces on Snake Island had all been killed after losing communications with the island. 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.

“Defending the Zmeinyi island, all our border guards died a heroic death. But they have not surrendered,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy initially said. “They will all be awarded posthumously the title of the Hero of Ukraine. Let those who gave their lives for Ukraine be remembered forever.”

Within days of the release of the recorded exchange between the Russian warship and Snake Island’s defenders, the Russian government announced it had actually captured the Ukrainian forces on the island, rather than killing them all in a naval bombardment.

The Ukrainian side was ready to accept that the Ukrainian forces on Snake Island had survived, but defended against claims they had abandoned those troops.

“Russian propaganda is trying to twist the ‘news’ that the Ukrainian authorities have ‘forgotten’ and ‘buried’ their subordinates,” the Ukrainian Navy said after learning of the surviving Snake Island defenders.

The Ukrainian Navy said its efforts to confirm the fate of the Snake Island defenders were complicated by the loss of communications with the island. The Ukrainian navy said a civilian vessel had tried to reach the island but was also captured by Russian forces, further complicating Ukraine’s efforts to determine what happened to the island’s defenders.

In addition to the exchange with Ukraine’s Snake Island defenders, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk announced on Thursday the exchange of ten more Russian service members for 10 Ukrainian service members captured by Russia.