Ukraine is taking the fight to Russia in Africa, Syria

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When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it expected to celebrate victory in Kyiv within weeks. But Ukraine not only fought back on its own battlefields but also took the fight against Russia to other parts of the world.

The frontline of the Russo-Ukrainian war now extends into Africa and the Middle East, where Ukrainian special forces have been hunting Russian forces to erode Moscow’s economic resources and influence.

According to a leaked top-secret U.S. intelligence document, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency previously devised plans to attack Russian forces in Syria with clandestine Kurdish assistance in early 2023. The objective behind targeting Russian units in Syria was to potentially compel Russia to redirect its military assets from Ukraine to strengthen its defenses in Syria. Ukrainian officers considered training Syrian Democratic Forces operatives to strike Russian targets with unmanned aerial vehicle attacks.

Leading Ukraine’s charge to fight Russia anywhere where Russians can be found has been Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, who heads the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence. Budanov himself has taken secret missions to attack Russia in the occupied Crimean Peninsula after 2014 and helped kill a lieutenant general from Russia’s FSB security service. Budanov’s agency is separate from Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, much like the FBI and CIA are separate in the U.S. But both Ukrainian intelligence agencies have been responsible for numerous drone strikes inside Russia.

Ukrainian Defense Intelligence has close ties to the CIA, which helped develop the top-secret Ukrainian intelligence organization after Russia’s first invasion in 2014. Since its inception, it has had authority to collect intelligence outside Ukraine. According to the New York Times, Budanov’s initial unit was known for its daring missions behind enemy lines, and he himself was trained by the CIA.

Budanov stated his intention in March 2024 to bring the fight to Russia and confirmed reports that Ukraine is fighting Russian mercenaries in Africa. “We conduct such operations aimed at reducing Russian military potential, anywhere where it’s possible,” Budanov told the Washington Post. “Why should Africa be an exception?”

In Africa, Russia collaborated with Sudan’s military leadership to divert billions of dollars in gold, significantly depriving the citizens of Sudan of substantial state revenue, to help Russia circumvent Western sanctions. In 2021, Russia backed a military coup that ousted the transitional civilian government of Sudan, undermining the pro-democracy movement that had successfully removed long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir. According to a former U.S. official, Russia exploited Sudan’s resources and supported the coup to ensure continued access to these valuable assets.

In August 2023, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba promised to “free Africa from Russia’s grip,” as he waged a diplomatic counter-offensive. Meanwhile, by August 2023, Ukraine’s military intelligence “Timur” unit was conducting a military campaign to hunt Russian mercenaries in Sudan.

CNN reported that Ukrainian special services were helping launch drone strikes against Russian-backed forces in Sudan in September 2023. Sergey Sukhankin, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, believes there must have been an agreement between Ukraine and its Western allies that provided military backing against Russia in the event Ukraine attacked Russian forces in Africa.

In addition to their combat operations, the Wall Street Journal reported that Ukrainian troops in Sudan have been teaching Sudanese government forces tactics that have proven effective against Russian troops in Ukraine. This includes the use of first-person view drones to target Russian positions, improving the combat effectiveness of the Sudanese army. A British intelligence officer who has worked with Ukrainian intelligence compared it to Israel’s Mossad, stating that “when they go after a target, they really will do whatever it takes.”

Ukraine’s involvement in Sudan accomplishes several key objectives. First, by teaching Sudanese forces and striking Russian Wagner mercenaries, Ukraine undermines Russian influence in the region, demonstrating that Russian forces are vulnerable even in Africa. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ukraine’s drone strikes against Moscow have even influenced the perceptions of people in war-torn Afghanistan, where “many now see Russia as a dangerous place where drones regularly strike the capital.” 

Second, it may be diverting Russian resources away from Ukraine, compelling the Russians to reinforce in Africa. Additionally, by weakening the Wagner Group (now the Africa Corps) and diminishing Russian influence in Africa, Ukraine is targeting Russia’s exploitation of Sudanese resources and efforts to circumvent Western sanctions.

In the entrenched battlegrounds of Ukraine, special forces units find their specialized skills and capabilities underutilized in conventional stand-up fights. But these units excel in conducting independent harassing strikes and raids in remote territories, such as Sudan, where their training and expertise are fully leveraged.

By March 2024, the Kyiv Post reported that Ukrainian military intelligence was collaborating with Syrian rebels to launch attacks against Russian mercenaries in Syria. These operations targeted Russian forces stationed near the Golan Heights, which Israeli forces have occupied since 1967. The attacks by Ukrainian soldiers focused on “enemy checkpoints, strongholds, foot patrols, military vehicle columns, and other targets” in Syria.

Since the start of 2024, Russia has already established over 10 observation points along the border area between Syrian territory and the Golan Heights. Iranian militias have been actively operating in southern Syria, prompting frequent Israeli airstrikes. Maurizio Molinari writes that Russia has been gathering intelligence on the weapons used by Israel in Syria, which are similar to the Western arms supplied to Ukraine. Consequently, Ukrainian attacks may be disrupting Russian intelligence-gathering efforts, hindering their ability to analyze and adapt to these weapons in Ukraine.

Ukraine has the capability to engage militarily in regions where Western powers might be hesitant to intervene, such as Sudan and southern Syria. The return on investment for a small amount of Ukrainian input from Western powers could be quite substantial.

The West would be wise to provide Ukraine with more resources, including intelligence, to support its efforts to strike Russia wherever necessary.

David Kirichenko is an associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.

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