KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s army has accused Russia of dropping incendiary white phosphorus on Snake Island on Friday, the day after Moscow’s forces retreated from the strategic rocky outcrop on the southwestern part of the Black Sea that is key to the Kremlin’s war aims.
Control of the island, a tiny speck of land 20 miles off the coast of Odesa that has played an outsize role throughout the war, is vital for control of the Black Sea, including important shipping routes. Some observers speculated that the strike was a move by Russia to destroy equipment that it had abandoned on the island so that it did not fall into Ukrainian hands.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister who leads the Center for Defense Strategies, a think tank in Kyiv, on Saturday described the strikes as “weird,” because according to a video released by the Ukrainian military, he said, it appeared that “most of the shots were missed.”
He also said the use of white phosphorous seemed strange given that Ukrainian personnel were not believed to be on Snake Island at the time of the attack. He said he believed that Russia had struck the island “to complicate any Ukrainian presence there.”
White phosphorous, which produces a thick white smoke and has a garlic-like odor, can melt deep into flesh when the phosphorous lands on skin and cause severe burns. While controversial, it is not considered a chemical weapon, because it causes harm by burning at a high temperature rather than through toxic properties.
Although Russia’s defense ministry said on Thursday that its forces had withdrawn from Snake Island in a “gesture of good will,” the retreat came after sustained Ukrainian attacks — including with powerful, newly arrived Western weapons — on the island and on ships seeking to supply it.
On Saturday morning, Ukraine’s top military official, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said that two sorties of Russian Su-30 fighter jets flying from the Crimean Peninsula the previous day had dropped phosphorus bombs over the island, known in Ukrainian as Zmiiny. “The leadership of the armed forces of the Russian Federation does not even adhere to its own statements, which declare a ‘gesture of good will,’” General Zaluzhnyi wrote on the Telegram social media app.
Ukraine has also described Russian missile strikes that killed at least 21 people in the Odesa region of southern Ukraine on Friday as “retaliation” for the Russian retreat from Snake Island. “This was an act of revenge for the successful liberation of Snake Island,” Yevhen Yenin, the first deputy minister of internal affairs, said in an interview with The New York Times on Friday.
The Ukrainians have accused Russia of using white phosphorous bombs several times during the war.
In April, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine accused Russia of using phosphorus bombs “against residential districts and civilian infrastructure.” And in mid-May, images circulated of what was believed to be white phosphorus in the sky above the Azovstal steel plant in the port city of Mariupol, during the last weeks of pitched battles as the Russian military was trying to force soldiers inside the plant to surrender. Neither of those assertions were independently verified.
White phosphorous munitions are considered legitimate when used to mask troop movements and mark targets, but their use can be a violation of international law when civilian areas are targeted.
Victoria Kim and Roger Cohen contributed reporting.