Were Russian troops forced into a humiliating retreat from Snake Island, or did Moscow order a withdrawal from the strategic island as a “goodwill” gesture to promote grain exports?

Let’s see if we can untangle the propaganda from the facts, always keeping in mind that the fog of war shrouds all.

Snake Island’s position in the Black Sea allows guns and missiles stationed there to help control the waters through which much of Ukraine’s imports and exports travel. Or used to, before the war.

Russia took the island early on, but defiant Ukrainian troops there immediately became a symbol of resistance.

“Russian ship, f*** you,” was reportedly the semiofficial Ukrainian reply to the Russian warship Moskva (since sunk) ordering them off the island.

Needless to say, after all that, there’s a lot of prestige that comes with possession of Snake Island on top of its strategic significance.

That’s why both sides are claiming victory, even if only of a sort:

“Unable to withstand the fire of Ukraine’s artillery, missile and air strikes, Russian army left Snake Island,” the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Ukraine, Valery Zaluzhny, said.

Ukraine’s army said the video showed a Ukrainian-developed Bohdana 155mm self-propelled howitzer destroying Russian targets on the island.

Zaluzhny also thanked “foreign partners for the provided means of destruction.”

The last Russian troops left — some say “fled” due to heavy fire — by speedboat early on Thursday.

Moscow claims a sort of moral victory:

Russia’s ministry of defence stated that it had completed its assigned tasks and was tactically withdrawing to allow for grain exports from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.

“In order to organise humanitarian grain corridors as part of the implementation of joint agreements reached with the participation of the UN, the Russian Federation decided to leave its positions on Zmiinyi Island,” the defence ministry said.

Yeah, I’m not buying it.

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Russia could easily allow grain shipments while still holding Snake Island. It’s real simple: Make it known that ships are free to pass and then refrain from sinking them.

On the other hand, if your goal is to maintain a stranglehold on your enemy’s economy, you keep possession of the island vital to doing just that. To date, Moscow has not refrained from any violence, short of weapons of mass destruction, in harming Ukraine’s economy.

So this claim that Russia has suddenly grown a conscience about grain supplies doesn’t wash.

Economics aside, retreating under heavy fire and then saying, “I meant to do that!” is a pretty sad justification.

What Moscow might get away with here in the coming weeks is a propaganda win. No matter who holds Snake Island, shippers will remain wary of approaching Ukrainian ports. The Russian Navy might not have much firepower remaining in the Black Sea, but it only takes the threat of a minimal amount of force to scare unarmed freighters away.

When grain shipments fail to resume, Moscow can claim that it’s all Ukraine’s fault. Nothing will have changed except who has the advantage in finger-pointing.

Materially, however, the fact remains that Russia wanted the island, Russia tried to keep the island, but now Ukraine has the island back until and unless Russia manages to retake it.

No amount of spin can change that.

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