- Can lift Russian blockade of ports on the Black Sea
- Russia calls his departure a ‘goodwill gesture’
- Situation in Donbas more precarious for Kiev
- US pledges $800 million extra aid to Ukraine
KYIV, June 30 (Reuters) – Russian forces left the strategic outpost of Snake Island in the Black Sea on Thursday in a victory for Ukraine that could ease the Russian blockade’s hold on Ukrainian ports.
Russia said it had decided to pull out of the rock as a “goodwill gesture” to demonstrate that Moscow is not hindering UN efforts to open a humanitarian corridor through which grains can be shipped from Ukraine.
Ukraine said it had dislodged Russian troops overnight after an artillery and missile strike.
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“KABOOM!” tweeted Andriy Yermak, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s chief of staff. “No more Russian troops on Snake Island. Our forces have done a great job.”
Reinvigorating Ukraine’s struggle to repel the Russian invasion, the United States said it would provide Kiev an additional $800 million in weapons and military aid.
US President Joe Biden, speaking after a NATO summit in Madrid, said Washington and its allies were united in standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I don’t know how it will end, but it won’t end if Russia beats Ukraine,” Biden said at a news conference. “We will support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
SMOKE AND FIRE
Snake Island’s recapture came after weeks in which momentum in the four-month-old conflict seemed to shift in favor of Russia, which has focused its firepower on capturing towns and villages in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military posted an image to Facebook of what appeared to be the island, seen from the air, with multiple columns of black smoke above it.
“The enemy has hastily evacuated the remains of the garrison with two speedboats and has probably left the island. Currently, Snake Island is being consumed by fire, explosions are erupting,” it said.
Ukrainian Brigadier General Oleksii Hromov said Ukrainian troops would not occupy the island yet, but would.
The rocky outcrop overlooks sea routes to Odessa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port, where Russia is blocking food shipments from one of the world’s leading grain suppliers.
Snake Island caught the attention of the world after Russia captured it on the first day of the war. A Ukrainian guard, ordered to surrender by the Russian flagship cruiser Moskva, sent back: “Russian warship: go fuck yourself”.
“The most important aspect is that this could open the door for Ukrainian grain exports from Odessa, which is critical to the Ukrainian economy and global food supply,” said Rob Lee of the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
The lifting of the blockade was a primary goal of the West. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russia of deliberately causing world hunger as “blackmail”.
Moscow denies blocking ports and blames food shortages on Western sanctions, saying it is restricting its own exports.
“We are not preventing the export of Ukrainian grain. The Ukrainian army has cleared the entrances to their ports; no one is stopping them from clearing those mines and we guarantee the safety of grain shipping there,” Putin said on Thursday.
Several military experts said driving the Russians off Snake Island alone is not enough to unblock the ports.
“Does that mean the grain is suddenly flowing? No, really not,” said Marcus Faulkner, a war studies lecturer at King’s College London, pointing out that ports were still being mined and Russia was still able to intercept cargo ships at sea.
Russia has defended the island since February, despite Ukraine’s claims to cause serious damage, sink supply ships and destroy Russian fortifications.
New weapons sent by the West made the Russian garrison even more vulnerable, especially HIMARS, a United States-supplied missile system that Ukraine began using last week. Lee said Russia’s abandonment of the island is “probably a tangible result of NATO arms deliveries to Ukraine”.
Mathieu Boulegue of the Chatham House think tank in London warned that the Russian move could free up resources deployed on Snake Island to bolster its forces elsewhere on the Black Sea coast.
“We shouldn’t be fooled by it… It may be short-term relief, but there will be long-term pain,” he said.
In the battle for the Donbas, Ukrainian authorities said they were trying to evacuate the remaining inhabitants from the city of Lysychansk, where they say some 15,000 people remain.
Russian forces have been trying to surround Lysychansk since they captured Sievierodonetsk, across the Siverskyi Donets River, last week after weeks of fierce fighting.
“There is constant fighting. The Russians are constantly on the offensive. It does not stop,” regional governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian television.
An official of the pro-Russian separatist government in the province told the RIA news agency that the oil refinery in Lysychansk is now completely owned by Russian and pro-Russian forces and that all roads to Lysychansk are also under their control.
Ukraine says the main road out is largely impassable due to fighting, but the city has not yet been completely cut off.
Despite Ukraine’s gains in recent weeks and heavy losses in the Donbas, Ukraine hopes to do enough damage to exhaust Russia’s advancing army. Ukrainian forces have mounted a counterattack in the south, where Russia-installed proxies have announced they are preparing for votes to join Russia.
In Madrid, NATO leaders once again repositioned the alliance on Cold War terms, declaring Russia its main adversary and announcing plans to put 300,000 troops on edge.
The alliance invited Finland and Sweden to join, and leaders promised more weapons for Ukraine, including Biden’s pledge of $800 million in aid on top of the more than $6.1 billion the United States had already announced since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. .
Britain offered another $1.2 billion in military aid, including air defense systems.
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Reporting by Reuters Agencies Written by Peter Graff and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Andrew Heavens
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