Few had heard of Snake Island before Feb. 24, when Russia launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine. But the tiny Black Sea island off the coast of the Danube Delta became famous on the first day of the war, when its defiant Ukrainian defenders told a Russian warship threatening to bomb them exactly where it should go. That act of defiance became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, a middle finger flipped into the face of Moscow’s revanchist ambitions.

Over the course of the war, the strategic importance of the Black Sea has become clear. Militarily, it is now a crucial strategic area for NATO’s eastern flank. Economically, its ports move the grain that feeds much of the Middle East and Africa, and there are significant reserves of gas beneath the seabed.

Military control over Snake Island and the waters around it affects all sea routes connecting Ukraine with the rest of the world, as well as those that connect continental Europe with the Black Sea basin via the Danube. Keeping this territory under Ukrainian control is important not only to ensure the economic survival of Ukraine itself, but also to support global grain supplies, future exploitation of energy reserves, and broader regional security.

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Since 2014, when Russia illegally occupied Crimea, it has tried to tighten its control over the Black Sea region. Russia turned the Crimean Peninsula into a vast nuclear capable military base. Before the start of the full-scale invasion this year, the Russian Federation (RF) seized a significant part of the Black Sea. After Feb. 24, Russia occupied Snake Island, allowing its fleet to block Ukrainian ports. 

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Moreover, Russia occupied gas deposits near the island.

Despite its small size, military units were stationed on Snake Island because it was well positioned for placing surveillance equipment and air and sea defense systems.

During the four-month occupation of the island, with support from military bases in Sevastopol, Russia was able to control all air and naval traffic, as well as use the island as a platform for electronic warfare. In addition, Russia hoped to use the island to support an amphibious landing on the mainland, which was foiled by Ukraine’s successful defense of Odesa.

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Notwithstanding its lack of a significant naval fleet, Ukraine gradually destroyed a number of Russian ships, including the flagship cruiser Moskva. The Ukrainian army eventually liberated Snake Island on June 30, and even attacked the Boyko Towers (oil production towers occupied since 2014) and the Bay of Sevastopol.

As a result, Ukraine has managed to restore relative security in the Black Sea. But in order to return security guarantees to the entire Black Sea region, many analysts feel it is necessary to de-occupy the Crimean Peninsula.

Mykhailo Honchar, an analyst who specializes in international energy and security relations, shares this view, believing it would turn the Black Sea into a zone with minimal military and political risks. This will only be possible after the military defeat of Russia. And Russian forces can only be driven out of the western Black Sea region by de-occupying Crimea.

"Russia's plan during the occupation of Crimea was not only to establish military control in the region, but also to seize assets on the shelf of the western Ukrainian region, so as to make it impossible for Ukraine to cooperate with foreign companies,” Honchar told Kyiv Post. That way Ukraine could not ensure the export of gas and oil to European countries and would not be able to become independent from Russia with respect to energy. After all, no one will invest in a place that is under fire from the Russian Federation," Honchar said

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On land, Russia has been trying to seize the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast, thereby creating a land corridor between Crimea and the occupied Donbas, which would extend in the west all the way to Transnistria, the unrecognized breakaway territory in Moldova occupied by Russia since 1992. 

In theory, Ukraine can block Russia’s efforts with more support from the United States and other NATO partners. What Kyiv needs most in its defense of the Black Sea is long-range artillery systems, continued deliveries of anti-ship systems, such as Harpoon missiles, to deter the landing of Russian amphibious troops, and anti-aircraft systems. It also needs modern radars and integrated control systems.

Meanwhile, the deployment of such defense systems on the Black Sea coasts of Romania and Bulgaria (both NATO members) will help protect shipping routes and marine energy infrastructure. 

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Another important strategic issue is the export of oil and gas reserves. Romania plans to produce about 200 billion cubic meters of offshore gas over the next 10 to15 years. Thus far, Russia's ability to affect energy supplies to Europe has been significant. The European economy is facing the highest level of inflation in the last generation

Possible cooperation between Ukraine and Romania in the field of oil and gas production is also being considered.

Honchar, however, is skeptical. “After all, for many years, the two neighboring countries did not need cooperation, because there was no equipment for gas production on the Black Sea shelf,” he said. “In 2012, the self-elevating drilling rigs Nezalezhnist and Petro Hodovanets were purchased from Singapore, which allowed raising the level of gas production to 1.7 billion cubic meters by 2014 (that is, before the occupation of Crimea and, accordingly, the Ukrainian shelf). And if not for the aggression of the RF, then by 2020 Chernomornaftogaz would have been able to increase gas production to 5-7 billion cubic meters."

Also, according to Honchar, in the early 2010s, Ukraine invited the U.S. corporation ExxonMobil to participate in a consortium consisting of ExxonMobil Exploration and Production Ukraine BV (40% operator), Shell (35%), OMV(15 %) through the Romanian company Petrom) and NAC Nadra Ukrainy (10%) won the competition to conclude a production sharing agreement for the Scythian oil and gas site on the Black Sea shelf. The agreement was scheduled to be signed in May 2014, but the Russian occupation prevented it.

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Perhaps in the post-war period, without Russian aggression in the Black Sea region, such cooperation will be possible. But for now, the priority is to regain control over what the RF has seized. Otherwise any form of cooperation will be moot.

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