Russian Troops Leave Snake Island, Continue East Attack

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — Russian forces withdrew from a strategic island in the Black Sea on Thursday after relentless Ukrainian attacks, but pushed ahead to encircle the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the eastern province of Luhansk.

Russia portrayed Snake Island’s withdrawal from the port city of Odessa as a “goodwill gesture.” The Ukrainian army said the Russians fled the island in two speedboats after a barrage of Ukrainian artillery and missile strikes.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Igor Konashenkov said the withdrawal was intended to demonstrate that Russia is not hindering UN efforts to establish a humanitarian corridor for agricultural exports from Ukraine.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of blocking Ukrainian ports to prevent grain exports, contributing to the global food crisis. Russia has denied the allegations, saying Ukraine must remove mines from the Black Sea to allow safe navigation.

Turkey has tried to strike a deal to unblock grain exports. But talks dragged on, with Kiev expressing fears that Russia will misuse the mine removal to attack Odessa.

Snake Island is located along a busy shipping route. Russia took control of it in the early days of the war in the apparent hope of using it as a staging area for an attack on Odessa.

The island took on legendary significance for Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion early on, when Ukrainian troops there reportedly received a request from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombed. The answer supposedly came back: “Go (expletive) yourself.”

Ukraine has celebrated the story with patriotic fervor and issued a postage stamp in commemoration.

The Ukrainian defenders of the island were captured by the Russians, but later released as part of a prisoner swap. After the island was taken, the Ukrainian army heavily bombed the small Russian garrison there and its air defenses.

At a NATO summit in Madrid, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called Russia’s withdrawal a sign that Ukraine will prevail in the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Ultimately, it will prove impossible for Putin to contain a country that does not accept the occupation,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Moscow continued to push to take control of the entire Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. It is centered on the city of Lysychansk, the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the Luhansk province.

Russian forces and their separatist allies control 95% of Luhansk and about half of Donetsk, the two provinces that make up predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas.

Ukraine said Russians shelled Lysychansk and clashed with Ukrainian defenders around an oil refinery on the outskirts of the city.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said Russian reconnaissance units tried to enter Lysychansk on Wednesday but were repelled. He said the Russians were trying to block a highway used to deliver supplies and completely surround the city.

“The Russians have practically deployed all their troops to capture the city,” Haidai said.

In other developments:

— A senior Russian official warned that Moscow could interpret Western sanctions as grounds for war. “Under certain circumstances, such hostile measures could be seen as an act of international aggression, or even a casus belli,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, said in a speech at a legal forum.

– During a visit to Turkmenistan on Thursday, Putin said his goals in Ukraine have not changed since the start of the war. He said they were “the liberation of the Donbas, the protection of these people and the creation of conditions that would guarantee the security of Russia itself.” He made no mention of his original stated goals to “demilitarize” and “de-nazify” Ukraine.

He denied that Russia had changed its strategy after failing to take Kiev early in the conflict. “As you can see, the troops are moving and reaching the points set for them for a particular phase of this combat work. Everything is going according to plan,” Putin said.

– Funerals were scheduled for Thursday for some of the 18 people killed on Monday in a Russian airstrike on a busy shopping center in the central city of Kremenchuk. Crews searched the rubble for 20 others who were still missing.

— Sweden announced plans to send more military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons and mine-clearing equipment. “It is important that the support for Ukraine from the democratic countries in Europe is continuous and long-lasting,” Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said, according to the Swedish news agency TT.

Sweden was invited this week to join NATO, a process that could take months.

— Russia, shunned by the West, plans to strengthen ties elsewhere. On Thursday, Iranian state media said Iran has proposed to expand financial exchanges with Russia and cooperate on energy matters. Both countries are under heavy Western sanctions.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Putin met on the sidelines of a summit in Turkmenistan, state news agency IRNA reported.

Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at

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