Commanders from Ukraine’s southern force said they had destroyed a Russian command post and an anti-aircraft missile system in a successful strike on the island on Tuesday, adding Putin’s forces, who arrived there in the very early stages of the military conflict, had been “reduced”.
However, in a later statement posted on Facebook, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine said: “We [have a] strong belief that all Ukrainian defenders of Zmiinyi (Snake) Island may be alive.
“After receiving information about their possible location, the [border guard service] together with the Armed Forces of Ukraine are conducting work on identifying our soldiers.”
They were subsequently released from captivity as part of a prisoner exchange with Russian forces.
In celebration of their heroism, Ukraine’s postal service, Ukrposhta, earlier this month issued one million stamps featuring the insult to Moscow as a “symbol of courage and the indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people”.
Tuesday’s decimation follows the sinking of the 510-crew Moskva, which was a symbol of Russia’s military power, leading its naval assault on Ukraine.
The Kremlin initially denied reports the warship had sunk but the Russian defence ministry eventually admitted the loss of the 12,490-tonne vessel, saying the Moskva was being tugged to port when “stormy seas” caused it to sink.
It claimed: “While being towed… towards the destined port, the vessel lost its balance due to damage sustained in the hull as fire broke out after ammunition exploded. Given the choppy seas, the vessel sank.”
Kyiv and Washington, meanwhile, said a Ukrainian missile was responsible for the sinking, with Kyiv adding the captain of the warship, Anton Gerashchenko, had been killed on board.
The vessel is the biggest Russian warship to be sunk in action since World War Two – a fact that echoes the fierce resistance of Ukrainian forces that is currently helping them through Putin’s battle for the Donbas.
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According to the latest intelligence report by the UK’s Ministry of Defence, Moscow has “failed to effectively destroy the Ukrainian Air Force or suppress Ukrainian air defences” in its latest attempts to conquer the region.
It added: “Ukraine continues to hold Russian air assets at risk.”
Donbas, home to rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk, is the key target in Russia’s “second phase” of the offensive, which the Kremlin launched early last week after announcing on March 25 the first part of its “military operation” in Ukraine was mostly complete.
The MoD’s analysis read: “Ukraine retains control over the majority of its airspace.”
Attacks by Moscow are however continuing to damage the country’s infrastructure, killing soldiers and taking the lives of innocent civilians.
On Tuesday, as a humanitarian corridor should have allowed hundreds of residents in Mariupol to escape, there were reports of 25 airstrikes at the Azovstal steelworks.
Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the port city’s mayor, claimed Russian forces had fired their artillery on the exit zone of the four-square-mile industrial plant, which is the temporary home of an estimated 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers and their families.
They did so just moments after announcing through loudspeakers that a green passage had been opened, Mr Andryushchenko said, adding the agreement on a humanitarian corridor had proven to be a “trap”.