KYIV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian military has accused Russia of dropping incendiary white phosphorus on Snake Island on Friday, the day after Moscow’s forces withdrew from the strategic rocky outcrop in the southwest Black Sea , which is key to the Kremlin’s war aims.
Control of the island, a tiny piece of land 20 miles off Odessa that played an outsized role throughout the war, is vital for control of the Black Sea, including important shipping routes . Some observers have speculated that the strike was a move by Russia to destroy equipment it had abandoned on the island so it would not fall into Ukrainian hands.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister who heads the Center for Defense Strategies, a think tank in Kyiv, called the strikes Saturday “bizarre” because, according to a video released by the Ukrainian military, he says, it appeared that “most of the shots were missed.
He also said the use of white phosphorus seemed odd given that Ukrainian personnel were not believed to be on Snake Island at the time of the attack. He said he believed Russia struck the island “to complicate any Ukrainian presence there.”
White phosphorus, which produces thick white smoke and smells like garlic, can melt deep into the flesh when the phosphorus lands on the skin and cause severe burns. Although controversial, it is not considered a chemical weapon because it causes damage by burning at high temperatures rather than due to its toxic properties.
Although the Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday that its forces had withdrawn from Snake Island in a “goodwill gesture”, the withdrawal came after sustained Ukrainian attacks – including with powerful newly arrived Western weapons – on the island and on ships seeking to supply this.
On Saturday morning, Ukraine’s top military official, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said two sorties by Russian Su-30 fighter jets from the Crimean peninsula the day before had dropped phosphorus bombs on the island, known in Ukrainian as Zmiiny’s name. “The leadership of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation does not even adhere to its own statements, which declare a ‘goodwill gesture,'” Gen. Zaluzhnyi wrote on the social media app Telegram.
Ukraine also described Russian missile strikes that killed at least 21 people in the Odessa region of southern Ukraine on Friday as “retaliation” for the Russian retreat from Snake Island. “It was an act of revenge for the successful liberation of Snake Island,” Yevhen Yenin, the first deputy interior minister, said in an interview with The New York Times on Friday.
The Ukrainians accused Russia of having used white phosphorus bombs several times during the war.
In April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of using phosphorus bombs “against residential neighborhoods and civilian infrastructure”. And in mid-May, images circulated of what was believed to be white phosphorus in the sky above the Azovstal steelworks in the port city of Mariupol, during the last weeks of pitched battles. as the Russian army tried to force soldiers inside the factory. surrender. None of these claims have been independently verified.
White phosphorus munitions are considered legitimate when used to conceal troop movements and mark targets, but their use may violate international law when civilian areas are targeted.
victoria kim and Roger Cohen contributed report.