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A defiant last stand by a small group of Ukrainian border guards defending a Black Sea outpost has become a rallying cry for a country under attack by Russian forces – and for Russians who oppose the war.

The guards were stationed on Snake Island, a low-lying piece of land 35 kilometres from the Ukrainian coast that has long delineated the country’s southwestern border.

On Thursday, as Russian forces invaded Ukraine from numerous directions, a warship approached the island – just 0.17 square kilometres in size and also known as Zmiiniy Island – and ordered the guards to stand down.

“I suggest you surrender your weapons and capitulate. Otherwise, I will open fire,” a male voice says in audio posted to the internet that has now been played millions of times. “Do you copy?”

“This is it,” a Ukrainian border guard says. “Should I tell him to go fuck himself?”

“Just in case,” another guard says.

The first man then responds via loudspeaker: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!”

Moments later, the Russian forces attacked, killing 13.

Russia-Ukraine live updates: Battle for Kyiv escalates, Zelensky says capital is under Ukrainian control

Their defiance earned praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who named the 13 men and said they had “died heroically.” Each man will be honoured as a “hero of Ukraine,” he said.

“Their feat is an example of the invincibility of the Ukrainian people,” the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in tweet.

At least 137 Ukrainians have died in the fighting, Ukrainian authorities said Friday, and hundreds more have been injured. Ukraine’s military has in response felled a number of Russian jets and helicopters and destroyed numerous armoured vehicles, including 20 tanks attacking from the north, the Armed Forces reported Friday morning. Ukrainian forces also launched a missile strike on a Russian military airfield, destroying some aircraft there, and claimed to have killed some 800 Russian soldiers.

Russian news channels, operating under a strict censorship regime, did not release casualty estimates but said Russian forces had destroyed 41 Ukrainian military vehicles, 18 tanks and armoured fighting vehicles and five combat boats.

But the fall of Snake Island has become a symbol of a Ukrainian military that is outgunned but unbending.

The island’s importance to Ukraine was underscored by Ukraine’s Defence Minister last year. In a December interview, Oleksii Reznikov told The Globe and Mail that he wanted to see Canadian troops stationed there.

“It would be nice if the Canadian instructors … would be deployed in Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Odesa and Zmiiniy Island,” he said. Such places, he added presciently, would likely become front-line positions in the event of a large-scale Russian assault.

  • Olha Zapotochna with her ill son Arthur after crossing the Ukrainian-Polish border, in Medyka, Poland on Feb. 25.Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times News Service

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Indeed, heavy fighting has erupted in all those places.

Now, with Russian forces driving toward the heart of Kyiv, Ukraine has called for broad public resistance. On Thursday, Mr. Reznikov said Ukraine would simplify enlistment to enable anyone capable of holding a weapon to join the country’s reserves, the Territorial Defence Forces. In Kyiv alone, more than 18,000 guns and ammunition have been distributed to reserve troops, authorities said.

Across the country, lines have formed at military recruiting offices and blood donation centres. Thousands have joined, authorities said.

On Friday, as worry intensified that Kyiv could fall, the Ministry of Defence called on citizens to report the movements of Russian troops and make their own Molotov cocktails to “neutralize” attackers.

“Today Ukraine needs everything,” said Yuri Galushkin, who heads the Territorial Defence Forces.

Resistance emerged in many places, including an older woman whose angry diatribe at Russian troops also circulated widely. A video shows her offering sunflower seeds to the soldiers, as she shouts: “Take these seeds and put them in your pockets so at least sunflowers will grow when you die here.”

On social media, meanwhile, the Snake Island video spread widely across social media, with many people changing Facebook profile pictures to reflect the border guards’ profane riposte.

“Our country, by the orders of President Putin, started a war with Ukraine. And there is no one to stop the war,” said Dmitry Muratov, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, in a video posted to YouTube. “Therefore, along with grief, we, and I personally, experience shame.”

Editor’s Note: This story quotes authorities in Kyiv saying 13 Ukrainians were killed by a Russian warship on Snake Island. In fact, recent reports by authorities in Kyiv are that the 13 are alive and were captured by the Russians. See this article.

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