March 4, 2022

A group of 13 Ukrainian soldiers stationed on Snake Island in the Black Sea has captured the world’s attention, but the group has also been the subject of confounding social media reports about their status.

The soldiers were initially reported dead after a Russian warship attacked Snake Island, also known as Zmiiny Island, but they now are believed to be alive and in Russia.

Russia and Ukraine offered competing accounts about how the soldiers came to be in Russian custody. Russia says they surrendered, while Ukraine maintains they were taken captive.

From a Feb. 25 video on Facebook that says the soldiers had been killed, to a TikTok video shared in a Feb. 27 post on Facebook that says they voluntarily surrendered to Russia, conflicting and partisan information has made it difficult to discern the facts.

Against this backdrop, Russia has been misleadingly portraying Ukrainian troops as weak and surrendering to Russia.

What we know

The saga began with a Feb. 24 confrontation between a Russian warship and the 13 Ukrainian soldiers who were guarding Snake Island, located east of the southern border between Ukraine and Romania on the Black Sea. An audio recording, first published by Ukrainian news outlet Ukrayinska Pravda, captured the exchange between the two groups. NPR said it had confirmed the authenticity of the recording with Ukrainian and U.S. defense officials.

The Russian ship warned the soldiers to surrender “to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary deaths,” NPR reported. “Otherwise, you will be bombed.”

One of the Ukrainians responded, “Russian warship. Go f— yourself.”

Russia “fired from naval weapons and used combat aircraft,” leaving the island’s infrastructure destroyed and the island captured, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine said in a Feb. 26 post on Facebook.

Just after the attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the soldiers “died heroically but did not give up,” and that they would be honored as heroes, the New York Times reported.

But Russian state media later reported that 82 people, including the soldiers from Snake Island, were in Russia’s custody. State media released photos of the soldiers, whom it said had been taken to Sevastopol in Crimea.

The Ukraine Navy said in a Feb. 28 post on Facebook that the other people who were captured were from a civilian ship sent to help after the attack.

“The SBGSU and the Armed Forces, like the whole of Ukraine, have received hope that all of Zmiiny’s defenders are alive,” the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine said in a Feb. 26 post on Facebook.

What we don’t know

The circumstances of the Ukrainian soldiers’ capture is in dispute.

A Russian state media outlet characterized it as a surrender. But Russia has used hackers and fake social media accounts to portray Ukrainian soldiers as weak and surrendering.

And the TikTok video shared Feb. 27 on Facebook, which says the soldiers voluntarily surrendered to Russia, is from the account for RT News, an American cable network funded by the government of Russia.

Ukraine said the Snake Island infrastructure was destroyed in the Russian attack, and the audio recording of the incident indicates that the soldiers were defiant, all of which calls into question whether the surrender was voluntary.

Ukraine decried the Russian efforts to portray it as a surrender.

“We understand that Russian propagandists know how to make the necessary information attacks and use them, noting that Ukrainian defenders have surrendered,” the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine said in a Feb. 26 post on Facebook. “Border guards and fighters of the Armed Forces bravely defended themselves, especially in the face of the overwhelming means of defeat and enemy forces.”

This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for this fact check here and more of their fact checks here.

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Monique Curet is a contributing writer for PolitiFact. She has worked as a reporter covering business, agribusiness, medicine and police at The Columbus Dispatch and…
Monique Curet

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