The Russian invasion of Ukraine is entering its third day, with Russian troops reportedly approaching the Ukrainian capitol of Kyiv and tens of thousands of refugees fleeing west. On one distant outpost of the front lines, Ukrainians may have found a rallying cry: “Go fuck yourself.”
That was reportedly the response that 13 border guards stationed on a small, rocky Black Sea outcropping known as Snake Island gave to a Russian naval ship that was broadcasting a message asking for their surrender.
Russian forces reportedly then bombarded and attacked the island, killing all 13 border guards.
The story of the defiant Ukrainian troops began to spread on Thursday, a single act of heroism that represented what are almost certainly many other individual courageous acts and sacrifices happening across Ukraine at this moment.
In videos that were reportedly filmed and broadcast by the border guards on Snake Island, a Russian ship can be seen patrolling offshore.
“I suggest you surrender your weapons and capitulate,” reads one translation of what can be heard being broadcast from the ship. “Otherwise I will open fire.”
After a moment of deliberation, the Ukrainian troops can be heard responding bluntly: “Russian ship, go fuck yourself.”
Hours after video of the attack emerged, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that the 13 border guards would be posthumously bestowed the title of “Hero of Ukraine,” the highest honor that can be bestowed by his office.
The current conflict in Ukraine has been described as the first “TikTok war,” given its widespread and often near real time visibility on social media. That has also led, however, to a great deal of misinformation proliferating. Some of it is deliberate, taking place as part of the information war that both countries are fighting on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms. Other claims appear to be from social media users who are distributing what they see without discerning if it is true or not.
In the week before the invasion, Russian state media officials claimed that Ukrainians might begin gassing their own people. RT, a propaganda outlet funded by the Kremlin, later claimed that 82 Ukrainians on Snake Island were taken prisoner after they laid down their arms.
Since the start of the invasion, discerning fact from fiction has only become more complicated. For example, clips from a video game have been passed off as footage of Russian aircraft being engaged by Ukrainian air defense batteries. Footage taken in Libya more than a decade ago has circulated as supposedly showing Russian aircraft over Ukraine. On TikTok, video of a Russian paratrooper supposedly jumping into Ukraine amassed over 22 million views. It was, in fact, several years old.
The action at Snake Island, however, appears to be the real deal. A senior defense official told reporters on Friday that he was in no position to dispute accounts of the Ukrainian defenders’ response to the Russian warship.
“I would say that, from our perspective, it’s both gut-wrenching and inspiring and certainly reflective of what we have seen in the last 24 hours, which is the Ukrainians being willing to fight for their country – and do so bravely.”
The sacrifice of the troops at Snake Island recalls other acts of defiance in the face of overwhelming odds.
There is the story of the 101st Airborne Division, surrounded at Bastogne during WWII. When sent a message by German forces asking to take their surrender, Brig. Gen. Anthony McAuliffe sent back a simple, brief response – “Nuts!”
An old recruiting poster recalls another moment from the Battle of the Bulge, when an infantry soldier supposedly told a tanker maneuvering behind his position “Well buddy just pull that vehicle behind me – I am the 82d Airborne and this is as far as the bastards are going.”
There may be some apocryphal elements to both these stories, and what exactly transpired at Snake Island this week may never be precisely known. But the story of 13 troops, stationed on a small, remote outpost 35 kilometers off the coast near the city of Odessa, may be the start of a battle cry for all Ukrainians.
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