Snake Island sits along a busy shipping lane. Russia took control of it in the opening days of the war in the apparent hope of using it as a staging ground for an assault on Odesa.
It was unclear if the evacuation meant a change in Moscow’s designs on Ukraine’s biggest port, which is crucial for shipping grain to Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world. It’s also the headquarters of the country’s navy.
The island — shrouded in myth since ancient times — early on took on legendary significance for Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion, when Ukrainian troops there reportedly received a demand from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombed. The answer supposedly came back, “Go [expletive] yourself.”
Ukraine has celebrated the story with patriotic fervour, issuing a postage stamp in commemoration.
The island’s Ukrainian defenders were captured by the Russians but later freed as part of a prisoner exchange. After the island was taken, the Ukrainian military heavily bombarded the small Russian garrison there and its air defences.
At a NATO summit in Madrid, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson billed the Russian pullout as a sign that Ukraine will prevail in the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “In the end it will prove impossible for Putin to hold down a country that will not accept” occupation, Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Moscow kept up its push to take control of the entire Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. It is focused on the city of Lysychansk, the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk province.
Russian troops and their separatist allies control 95 per cent of Luhansk and about half of Donetsk, the two provinces that make up the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas.
Ukraine said the Russians were shelling Lysychansk and clashing with Ukrainian defenders around an oil refinery on its edges.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said Russian reconnaissance units trying to enter Lysychansk on Wednesday were repelled. He said the Russians were trying to block a highway used to deliver supplies, and fully encircle the city.
“The Russians have thrown practically all their forces to seize the city,” Haidai said, but denied that Lysychansk had been encircled.
Nevertheless, Haidai noted that as of Thursday evening, evacuations from the city were impossible due to heavy shelling and mined access roads. Earlier, a representative of the Ukrainian military said it was not planning a retreat from Lysychansk.
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