A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 7, 2024

The Reason Ukrainian Special Forces Are Now Fighting Russians In Sudan

Ukraine is fighting to undermine Russian political, economic and military links around the world. This includes Russian support for either rebels or established governments in Africa, specifically, Sudan. 

The strategic point is to disrupt Russia's efforts to bolster its global influence while also eliminating its attempts to threaten countries providing support to Ukraine. JL

Ian Lovett reports in the Wall Street Journal:

The front line in the war between Ukraine and Russia now extends into Africa. Sudan had been quietly supplying Kyiv with weapons since shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Sudanese rebels are backed by Russia. Ukrainian commandos landed in Sudan and began fighting to push Russian-backed rebels out of the capital, Khartoum. For Ukraine, sending troops to Africa is part of a strategy to disrupt Russia’s military and economic operations abroad, make the war more costly for Moscow, and position itself as a bulwark against Russian incursions, in regions where the West has been reluctant to get involved. “If they have gold mines in Sudan, we need to make them not profitable.”

When Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s military ruler, found himself besieged by rebel forces in the country’s capital last summer, he called an unlikely ally for help: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Zelensky had reasons to take the request seriously: Burhan had been quietly supplying Kyiv with weapons since shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, according to Ukrainian and Sudanese military officials. In addition, the Sudanese rebels were backed by Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group, which has also mined gold in the country and used it to fund Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

Within a few weeks of the call, Ukrainian commandos landed in Sudan and began fighting to push the rebel forces out of the capital, Khartoum, according to several Ukrainian soldiers involved in the operation.

The front line in the war between Ukraine and Russia now extends into Africa. 

With fighting in Ukraine at a near stalemate, a global battle over weapons and economic resources is taking shape, as both sides dig in for a war that could last many more years.

Moscow has been actively mining gold and training fighters in several African nations for years, but it is now stepping up economic pressure to deter smaller countries, such as Ecuador, from sending weapons to Kyiv, even indirectly.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, waving, in Port Sudan in August. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in the black sweater, meets with Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. PHOTO: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

For Ukraine, sending troops to Africa is an audacious new venture—part of a strategy to disrupt Russia’s military and economic operations abroad, make the war more costly for Moscow, and position itself as a bulwark against Russian incursions, including in regions where the West has been reluctant to get directly involved. 

“It’s impossible to overcome Russia simply by fighting on a small piece of land, like the front line in Ukraine,” said a 40-year-old Ukrainian officer, who goes by the call sign Prada and led one of the Ukrainian teams in Sudan. “If they have gold mines in Sudan, we need to make them not profitable.”

But the operation comes with significant political risk at a moment when Western support for Ukraine is wavering. In Sudan, Ukraine is wading into an internal conflict in a foreign country, where tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and the U.S. says both sides have committed war crimes. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that any country providing material support “bears responsibility for fueling atrocities against the Sudanese people.” 

In an interview, Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, who leads Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, known as HUR, declined to comment on whether he had deployed troops to Sudan but outlined the rationale for sending Ukrainian forces abroad.

“War is a risky business,” Budanov said. “We are in a full-fledged war with Russia…They have units in different parts of the world, and we sometimes try to strike them there.” 

A spokesman for Zelensky didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, declined to comment on whether he had deployed troops to Sudan. PHOTO: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

This account is based on interviews with several Ukrainian troops who took part in the Sudan operation, as well as with Sudanese soldiers, and video footage from Sudan viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The first wave of Ukrainian troops—nearly 100 soldiers, mostly from HUR’s Timur unit—landed on a charter jet in Sudan in mid-August. The Russian influence in the country was immediately apparent: Sudanese soldiers who had been trained in Russian military academies served as translators. 

The Ukrainians’ first mission was to help get Burhan out of Khartoum, where the rebel group, known as the Rapid Support Forces, had surrounded him. But not long after they arrived, Burhan drove in a convoy to the compound outside the capital where the Ukrainians were based. His guards had smuggled him out of Khartoum, according to Sudanese officials.

Burhan thanked the Ukrainians for their efforts, then headed to Port Sudan, a city on the Red Sea that his forces still controlled. He met Zelensky at Ireland’s Shannon Airport a few weeks later.

“We discussed our common security challenges, namely the activities of illegal armed groups financed by Russia,” Zelensky wrote on Telegram at the time of the meeting. He also thanked Burhan for “Sudan’s consistent support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Sudanese soldiers loyal to Burhan in Port Sudan. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Rapid Support Forces fighters at an entrance of the presidential palace in Khartoum. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The Ukrainian troops supplied Burhan’s guards with new AKM rifles and silencers, then turned their attention to trying to push the Wagner-backed rebels out of Khartoum.

A 30-year-old HUR officer known by the call sign King, who led the first group of Ukrainians to arrive in Sudan, said his team found a vastly different kind of conflict than the one they had left behind in Eastern Europe. Soldiers on both sides fought in sandals and sometimes fired entire magazines’ worth of ammunition while holding their rifles over their heads, unable to see what they were shooting at. Much of the Sudanese army hadn’t been paid since the fighting began months earlier, sapping their motivation. Fighters didn’t wear markings to show which side they were on, and friendly fire was a regular threat.

Neither side attacked at night. The Ukrainians, equipped with night-vision goggles and drones, saw an opening. 

“That was our big advantage—we knew how to operate at night,” King said. 

They would leave their base around 8 p.m., heading into the city in groups of about half a dozen, traveling in the backs of vans. In a video viewed by the Journal, the Ukrainians fired at an apartment building, which King said was an RSF base. Once RSF reinforcements arrived, the Ukrainians dropped munitions on them from drones. (He said there were no civilians in the area.)

At first, the RSF fighters—who were used to sleeping in the open along the front line—were caught off guard by the night raids. Then, they began to hide their positions.

The Ukrainian teams always pulled back to their base by morning, wary of drawing attention. 

“Even if we wanted to do something during the day, we’re a group of white people,” King said. “Everyone would realize what was going on.” 

Sudan has become a battlefield in the Russia-Ukraine war because it is rich in two resources: weapons and gold. 

During frequent conflicts in the country over several decades, arms poured in—directly and indirectly—from the U.S., Russia, China and elsewhere. As a result, Sudan had plenty of weaponry to spare in early 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine and Kyiv was searching for all the arms it could find. 

“We took a lot of weapons out of Sudan at one time. Different countries paid for it,” Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, said. “They had a wide range of weapons…You can find everything from Chinese to American weapons there.”

Meanwhile, Russia has long been plumbing Sudan for gold. Wagner led Moscow’s operation in the country, as it did in several other African nations. They trained RSF fighters, who in turn provided security for Russian entities at the mines. 

Before the conflict in Sudan began last spring, only 30% of the gold mined in the country was officially registered with the central bank, leaving $4 billion of gold annually unaccounted for, according to Sudanese officials and activists. Much of that smuggled gold ended up in Russian hands, activists say. 

Areas of control in Sudan


Gold Mine

Sudanese Armed Forces


Rapid Support Forces



Other militia/rebel groups

South Sudan People's Defense Forces*

Red Sea

Nile River

Port Sudan








Al Fashir

El Obeid



El Daein



200 miles


200 km

*SSPDF presence is limited to the Abyei area; the extent of their control is undetermined.
Note: As of Feb. 1.

Source: Sudan War Monitor

When the civil war erupted, the RSF initially refused Wagner’s offer of heavy weapons, concerned about alienating the U.S. But following military setbacks in April, the group reversed course, according to international security officials. On April 28, a convoy of Toyota pickups supervised by Wagner brought weapons, including shoulder-mounted antiaircraft missiles from the neighboring Central African Republic, where Wagner has established a power base in recent years. Wagner also began recruiting men from the Central African Republic to fight in Sudan and the RSF soon advanced into Khartoum. 

After the death of Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin last year, the Russian Defense Ministry took control of the group’s operations in Africa, though it is still widely known as Wagner. The Russian Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Wagner troops tend to stay back from the fighting in Sudan. In 2½ months in Sudan, King said, his team didn’t catch sight of any Wagner forces from Russia, though they tracked phone signals going back and forth between Khartoum and St. Petersburg. 

In November, King’s team went home, and Prada arrived with new troops from the Timur unit. His team captured one Russian Wagner fighter and killed two others. Prada said the man was detained during a fight in Omdurman, Khartoum’s twin city on the west bank of the Nile River, after he had grown confused about which fighters were on which side, and stayed after his own side retreated.

Two Sudanese men were also captured along with the Russian Wagner fighter, and Prada said his team killed a dozen more Sudanese fighters wearing Wagner patches. 

“Wagner has become like a franchise in Sudan. They fight using locals. They give them patches, pay them a salary, and say, ‘Now you’re Wagner,’ ” Prada said. “It was never our goal to chase individual Wagner soldiers. The goal was to disrupt Russian interests in Sudan.”

A member of Russia’s Wagner group in the Central African Republic in July. PHOTO: LEGER SERGE KOKPAKPA/REUTERS

Ukrainian troops also began training Sudanese soldiers on some of the same tactics that have helped them hold off a larger Russian army, especially the use of drones.

Ukrainian soldiers said the Sudanese forces had already ordered some explosive first-person-view drones, which detonate when they hit a target. But the Sudanese were missing crucial parts. The Ukrainians tracked down the components they needed and helped supply them with advanced Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones capable of precision airstrikes, which arrived in February, according to a Sudanese military official and an RSF adviser. (Officials from HUR declined to comment about helping Sudan procure Bayraktars.)

The Ukrainians stressed the importance of cutting off RSF supplies into Khartoum and soon began to focus on hitting roads into the city. Videos viewed by the Journal show FPV drones repeatedly hitting pickup trucks full of fighters as they crossed a bridge into Khartoum. 

“They were enthusiastic about FPV drones,” King said of the Sudanese troops. “In the end, a dozen or so people learned how to use them and hit targets, with video confirmation.”

A 28-year-old soldier from HUR’s Timur unit said he also worked with Sudanese forces to mine supply routes into Khartoum. In one operation, he said, they booby-trapped a truck that had broken down in the middle of the road.

“The next morning, when the enemy pickup full of infantry and weapons passed, we detonated it,” he said. The Journal viewed a video of the explosion.

Prada and his team returned to Ukraine early this year. Neither Ukrainian team suffered any casualties.

Ukraine’s influence is still being felt in Sudan. In recent weeks, Burhan’s forces regained control of large parts of Omdurman—their first major advance of the conflict. Experts attribute the gains, in large part, to precision drone strikes, as well as the deployment of the Sudanese army’s elite units. Kyiv also recently dispatched a shipment of wheat flour to Port Sudan, which arrived last week.

The RSF maintains control over parts of western Khartoum, as well as swaths of territory across western and southern Sudan.


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