The Ukrainians responded boldly.
“Russian warship,” came the reply, “go f — yourself.”
The Russians opened fire, eventually killing the 13 border guards.
News of the defiant last stand on the Black Sea went viral Thursday, highlighting the grim decisions that Ukrainians have faced during the largest attack on a European nation since World War II. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said hours later that the island’s defenders will be bestowed with the title “Hero of Ukraine,” the highest honorific the Ukrainian leader can award.
A copy of the recording was posted on the website of the Ukrainian news outlet Ukrayinska Pravda, and a Ukrainian official confirmed its authenticity to The Washington Post. A separate recording, posted on TikTok, shows what appears to be a border guard in a helmet and balaclava on the atoll, also known as Zmiinyi Island, or Snake Island, cursing after coming under fire. His profile lists him as a 23-year-old from Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea.
Stories of resistance amid bloodshed came from all over Ukraine. Zelensky, speaking at a news conference, said the border guards had attempted to protect the island for much of Thursday before they were killed. At least 137 Ukrainians were killed in less than a day of fighting, with operations continuing, he said.
A senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the operations candidly, said the Pentagon was aware of Ukrainians fighting back but declined to characterize their performance, citing a desire not to assist Russia.
“This is their country they’re fighting for,” the official said of the Ukrainians.
While isolated, the 42-acre island marks the edge of Ukraine’s territorial waters, giving it a strategic role within the Black Sea by connecting a shipping corridor to the Ukrainian cities of Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kherson.
The sparsely populated island has changed hands numerous times over the past century, serving as a military outpost for radar and other equipment.
After World War I, the island was seized by Romania. The Soviet Union took control of it after World War II, leading to the construction of a lighthouse and military base, according to a history of the dispute published at Queen’s University in Canada.
The island became Ukraine’s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, though Romania continued to dispute ownership. An international court ultimately left Ukraine in control of the island and Romania with possession of much of the surrounding waters.
Dalton Bennett and María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.