Last week, Ukrainian Special Forces were attributed with an attack on Russian soldiers in Syria. The Kyiv Post published a video obtained by Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence. The video, dated March 2024, purportedly shows Ukrainian attacks on Russian soldiers, convoys, and forward operating bases in southeast Syria. It has been suggested that Ukrainian Special Forces in Syria have teamed up with Syrian rebel groups. They likely paired with the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition, but which group under the coalition is unknown.

The ongoing Syrian civil war seems to have been a forgotten war. Russia has been greatly involved in propping up the Bashar al-Assad regime and has been complicit in numerous war crimes, including the indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

Ukraine’s involvement in the ongoing Syrian civil war is a development. However, it will not change the overall battlespace in Syria. Ukraine deployed a small contingent and it is not known for how long or the overall strength of the deployment. It does demonstrate that Ukraine will attack Russian interests abroad whenever they can. It serves more as an operational annoyance to the Russians. It also provides a morale boost to Ukraine as it can be propagandized that Ukraine can hit Russian troops and mercenaries globally. These special operation deployments serve to pop up and remind Russian forces internationally that they are not safe. It is not surprising that videos of these deployments are leaked to the media as it garners a larger international audience and publicizes their success.

Sudan: Past and Future

Syria is not the only country where Ukrainian special forces have hit back at Russian interests abroad.

Between 2014 and 2020, Sudan took a pro-Russian stance in the UN General Assembly by voting against resolutions that affirmed Ukraine’s 1991 territorial integrity. This changed after the 2020 Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Sudan secretly sent weapons to Ukraine. Since then, the de facto Sudanese government has been an ally of Ukraine.

In the summer of 2023, Ukrainian special forces and intelligence officers arrived in Sudan after its de facto ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, requested support. Sudanese rebels, the Rapid Support Force (RSF), were being supported by Russia’s Wagner Group and were being paid in gold, which then was in turn to help finance the war in Ukraine. The main task for the Ukrainian contingent at the time was to push rebel forces out of the city of Khartoum. The Kyiv Post obtained exclusive footage of Ukrainian special forces interrogating captured Russian Wagner fighters in Sudan. This suggested that the deployment consisted of several months as there seemed to be a change from urban to rural operations.

Sudan’s civil war continues. The conflict in Sudan has been a continuous one for decades in its various forms and one that has been forgotten by the international community many times. The UN warns that the civil war displaced over 10 million people and the risk of famine is imminent. Malik Agar is on record saying that the international community must assist Sudan to achieve peace. It seems that this has caused the Sudanese government to find support elsewhere.

Reports are circulating that Russia and Sudan are close to finalizing a deal for Russia to have a military refuelling station on the Red Sea Coast for the next 25 years. The deal will permit a Russian naval presence of four navy ships, including nuclear-powered ones, and the presence of up to 300 Russian troops. It will expand Russia’s regional naval projection with Russia’s naval base in Tartus, Syria.

In some irony, Sudan is seeking weapons and ammunition support from Russia in its ongoing civil war with the RSF. Russia offered weapons and ammunition to Sudan in exchange for the naval base. What encompasses the military package is unknown, but it would likely be more advanced systems such as armed helicopters. Russia entered a deal with Mali that encompassed helicopters and Su-25 subsonic warplanes. A similar deal is likely as Russia still has air assets not utilized in its war with Ukraine. Sudan has been known as an African country awash with small arms, hence why Sudan was readily able to provide weapons to Ukraine, so small arms is unlikely. Russia supplying armoured vehicles to Sudan is unlikely as Russia is refitting decommissioned vehicles for the Ukrainian war.

Malik Agar, Deputy Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council and leader of the SPLM-Revolutionary Front, travelled to Russia at the beginning of June for the Saint Petersburg International Economic Form. Agar was accompanied by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Finance and Minerals and they will be discussing how the two nations can improve relations. It is also likely that Sudan will provide gold and other mineral wealth to Russia as payment for its ongoing support. The inclusion of the Minister of Minerals and the relationship that the RSF had with the Wagner Group can only suggest that the Sudanese government will have to enter a similar arrangement.

Russia’s intervention in Syria started with Russia’s naval base presence in the country. A similar model may also occur. Sudan may invite a greater Russian presence once the base has been established. Russi could provide a handful of military and technical advisors, and intelligence staff to assist with the Sudanese government’s campaign to eliminate the RSF rebels. Ultimately, Sudan’s seachange back to Russia is a blemish on the international community and the West.

If Ukraine wants to deploy special forces back into this conflict, they may have to align themselves with the RSF — a group that they once targeted. However, the less complicated route would be for Ukraine to target the Russian naval base and the traffic going through it. This would stifle any gold and mineral wealth being transferred to Russia from the base. The issue, of course, is how Ukrainian special forces would pull this off.

Ukraine may be shifting its special operations abroad to Syria just because there is an ally with the SDF that the West supports. The winds are shifting in Sudan and back to the pro-Russian aligned direction that they were after Russia annexed Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.  If Ukraine continues its war abroad with Russian forces, the shifting of allies and proxies can only be expected. These are political landscapes and battlespaces that Ukraine cannot control and can only offer menial support. But that is the point, international hit and runs on Russian targets.

Feature Photo: “Ukraine SOF during US training Sea Breeze 2017”, Flickr, 2024

By Stewart Webb

The editor of DefenceReport and Senior Analyst, Stewart Webb holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. A frequent guest on defence issues for CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets, his specialities include commentary on terrorist/insurgent activity and Canadian defence issues. Stewart can be contacted at: [email protected]