Russia Switches Sides in Sudan War

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC

July 8, 2024

Executive Summary:

  • The Kremlin has reconsidered its support for the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces, throwing more weight behind the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Transitional Sovereignty Council.
  • The move serves to align Moscow’s position more closely with that of Iran, seeks to dampen the SAF’s cooperation with Ukraine, and highlights the ongoing interest in establishing a Russian naval base in Port Sudan.
  • Should Russia possess naval bases in both Libya and Sudan, it will have an opportunity to establish supply lines into the landlocked nations of the African interior that now host units of Moscow’s Africa Corps.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service)

The Kremlin is backing away from its support of the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan’s ongoing internal war. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov confirmed Moscow’s gradual shift on April 29 during a visit to Port Sudan (Sudan Tribune, April 29). Russia once saw RSF leader Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” as vital to establishing a Russian port on the Red Sea in Port Sudan (see EDM, November 14, 2023). The situation has since changed. Before his death, notorious Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin worked closely with the RSF, supplying arms in return for gold (see Terrorism Monitor, December 15, 2023). Simultaneously, however, the Kremlin maintained open channels with their opposition, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC) government. Moscow is now exploiting these openings.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov

Supporting the SAF and TSC, with control over Port Sudan, aligns Russian policy with Iran’s. For its part, Tehran has been supplying advanced drones to the SAF. The switch also helps sever the SAF’s relationship with Ukraine, which has been supplying drones and special forces assistance to General Abdel al-Fatah al-Burhan’s SAF since the summer of 2023 (Kyiv Independent, September 20, 2023; see EDM, November 14, 2023).

Bogdanov confirmed the Kremlin’s shift during his two-day visit to Port Sudan (Sudan Tribune, April 29). His military-heavy delegation offered Sudan “unrestricted qualitative military aid” while disapproving of Sudan’s military cooperation with Ukraine (Sudan Tribune, April 30). Bogdanov later clarified that Russia recognizes the TSC as the legitimate representative of the Sudanese people (Al-Mayadeen, May 31). The Russian official had met with Iranian Deputy Prime Minister Ali Bagheri Kani two days earlier in an apparent effort to align the Kremlin’s new approach with that of Tehran (Nour News, April 25).

Ukrainian Timur Unit Leaders

Some reports have claimed that operatives of the “Timur” unit of Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR) have been active in Sudan. While the leader of the unit neither confirms nor denies their presence, he declared, “Wherever there are soldiers, officers, or persons engaged by the special services of the Russian Federation, we catch up with them” (Ukrainska Pravda, February 13; New Arab, February 26). Ukrainian sources have reported months-long operations carried out in Sudan by Ukrainian special forces against “Russian mercenaries and their local terrorist partners” (Kyiv Post, January 30). Sources suggested that, during Bogdanov’s April visit, Sudan pledged to abandon military cooperation with the Ukrainians, while Russia agreed likewise to halt assistance to the RSF (Mada Madr, June 7).  The RSF has steadily become reliant on support from the United Arab Emirates in the face of diminishing Russian supplies since Prigozhin’s death.

Kyiv likely sought to interrupt the RSF-assisted flow of Sudanese gold that was helping Russia overcome international sanctions. In changing support from the RSF to the SAF, Moscow would temporarily forgo the gold shipments that have helped the Russian economy. The diminishing size of these shipments due to Sudan’s conflict, however, removes much of Russia’s incentive to continue supporting the RSF. Meanwhile, the Libyan port of Tobruk is effectively becoming a Russian naval base (see EDM, March 12). Should Russia possess naval bases in both Libya and Sudan, it will have an opportunity to establish supply lines into the landlocked nations of the African interior that now host units of Moscow’s Africa Corps.

Moscow is eager to implement a 2019 deal with Sudan to establish a Russian Red Sea naval base near Port Sudan capable of accommodating up to four ships at a time, including those with a nuclear power plant. Progress has been halted, however, due to the ongoing absence of a parliament or other legislative body in Sudan capable of ratifying the agreement (Military Review, February 13).

General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan (left) with General Yasir al-Atta (Sudans Post)

On May 25, Yasir al-Atta, a member of the Sovereignty Council and deputy commander of the army, declared that the TSC was ready to approve the deal, though the port was no longer described as a naval base. He stated, “Russia proposed military cooperation through a logistics supply center, not a full military base, in exchange for urgent supplies of weapons and ammunition” (Radio Dabanga, May 29; Mada Madr, June 7). While Atta said a partnership agreement with Russia was expected soon, he stressed that Sudan was open to similar agreements with countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Riyadh, which opposes the Russian port, has offered greater investment in Sudan if it drops the deal (Sudan Tribune, May 25).

Port Sudan – Red Sea Gateway to Africa

The Sudanese ambassador to Russia has assured Moscow that Sudan is not backing away from its commitment to construct a Russian naval base. Yet, Bogdanov confirmed on June 12 that while discussions on the port continued, “there are no firm agreements at this time” (Sputnik, June 1; Sudan Tribune, June 12). Many civilian leaders in Sudan question the TSC and the SAF’s right to implement an agreement with sovereignty implications. They also fear that the arrival of Russian military aid might only prolong the devastating conflict (Mada Madr, June 7).

Sudan may be looking to the Djibouti for-profit model of hosting naval bases for various countries. Jibril Ibrahim, Sudan’s finance minister (also the leader of Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement, now allied to the SAF), recently characterized the proposed Russian facility as “not a large base, but rather a service center for Russian ships to obtain supplies.” He added that Sudan’s Red Sea coast could “accommodate everyone if the United States wants to buy a similar port” (Asharq al-Awsat, June 8).  

Transitional Sovereignty Council leaders in Port Sudan may be using the extended negotiations with the Kremlin as a means of focusing Western attention on the conflict and the need to interrupt the supply of weapons and personnel to the RSF. Sudan routinely says its cooperation with Russia and Iran is unavoidable without Western support (Sudan Tribune, May 3). Otherwise, the degree of military cooperation between Sudan and Russia will depend greatly on how badly the politicians and generals in Port Sudan seek potentially game-changing Russian arms.


Assessing the War in Sudan: Is an RSF Victory in Sight?

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor 21(24)

Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC

December 15, 2023

After eight months of brutal warfare, Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) now appear to have the upper hand against the better-armed Sudan Armed Forces (SAF). Led by Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” the RSF has conducted a highly mobile campaign against the SAF’s reactive and defensive posture, allowing the group to take the initiative in all regions of the conflict. With the Sudanese capital of Khartoum now a devastated battlefield, the ineffective government, led by SAF commander-in-chief General Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan, operates from a temporary base in Port Sudan, which suffers from power shortages and a chronic lack of fresh water.

Peace talks in Jeddah between the two military factions, assisted by Saudi, American, and African Union mediators, were indefinitely suspended earlier this month after both sides failed to meet commitments agreed upon in earlier negotiations (al-Taghyeer [Khartoum], December 4; Africa News, December 5). The animosity between the factions is severe and historically based in the rivalry between the poor Arab tribesmen of western Sudan (the RSF) and the Arab elites of the Nile region who have controlled Sudan and its military since the country gained independence in 1956.

RSF Commander General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti”

Resistance to the RSF onslaught is weakening at all levels, placing Sudan’s diverse population at risk of rule by Arab supremacists with a record of savage conduct and a general ignorance of the means of development, administrative techniques, economic theory, and international relations.

The Impending RSF Conquest of Darfur

Four of Darfur’s five states, comprising nearly 80 percent of the western province, are now in RSF hands. North Darfur state and its capital, al-Fashir, may be the RSF’s next target. Al-Fashir is strategically and symbolically important as the former capital of the once powerful Fur Sultanate (c.1650-1916). Security in North Darfur is provided largely by the Joint Protection Force (JPF), an alliance of five non-Arab armed movements that has been busy recruiting in the region in anticipation of an RSF offensive. The RSF has also been recruiting from the region’s Arab population, setting the stage for a vicious ethnic conflict that will inevitably result in the mass slaughter and displacement of many of North Darfur’s civilians. Convoys bringing supplies to North Darfur from central Sudan have stopped, creating shortages of food, fuel, and medicines (Sudan Tribune, December 7).

JEM Leader Jibril Ibrahim (Sudan Tribune)

Two major armed movements, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army of Minni Minawi (SLA-MM), abandoned their self-declared neutrality on November 16 to announce their support for the SAF. Both groups also declared their willingness “to participate in military operations on all fronts without hesitation” (Radio Dabanga, November 17). JEM leader Jibril Ibrahim also condemned the RSF’s use of Arab mercenaries from Chad and Niger who have been promised the right to settle on land cleared of its non-Arab residents. The declaration followed months of murder and rape inflicted by the RSF on the non-Arab Black population of Darfur. The most notable atrocity involved the murder of some 1,300 civilians (mostly Masalit, an ethnic group in western Sudan and eastern Chad) in a camp for displaced people in West Darfur. The RSF attack began on November 2 and only ended three days later (Al Jazeera, November 10). The non-Arab Masalit have been targeted by the RSF and Arab militias since the start of the war in what appears to be an effort to ethnically cleanse the region of its indigenous Black population (see Terrorism Monitor, June 26).

Zaghawa Nomads (X)

Despite their small numbers, the ambitious Black African Zaghawa ethnic group plays a leading role in Darfur’s anti-government opposition. SLA-MM leader Minni Minawi, JEM leader Jibril Ibrahim, and al-Tahir Hajar, leader of the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces (GSLF), are all Zaghawa. During the fighting for Nyala, RSF gunmen were accused of assassinating prominent members of the Zaghawa community (Sudan Tribune, September 16).

Darfur Governor and SLA-MM Leader Minni Minawi (AFP)

Minni Minawi, governor of Darfur since August 2021, remains wary of the SAF, which continues to be commanded by members of Sudan’s riverine Arab elite. The rank-and-file troops are composed of conscripts from other regions, including many non-Arabs. Without substantial reforms to the composition of the SAF, Minawi notes its victory might only mean a return to an oppressive status quo (Sudan War Monitor, December 4).

RSF’s Series of Conquests

Under pressure from the RSF, garrisons across Darfur have fallen like dominos. Nyala, Sudan’s second-largest city, is the capital of South Darfur and an important military strongpoint. It fell after a long siege followed by a four-day assault that ended on October 26, killing hundreds of civilians during the shelling of the city (Asharq al-Awsat, October 29).

Zalingei, the capital of Central Darfur, was lost after the SAF’s 21st Infantry Division fled on October 31, allowing the RSF to walk in. Al-Geneina, capital of West Darfur, was taken by the RSF on November 4 after most of the 15th Division garrison fled, leaving hundreds of troops and weapons behind. Masalit civilians and captured troops were abused, whipped, and forced to run barefoot through the rubble (Sudan War Monitor, November 6). Gathering smaller garrisons along the way, the remaining defenders fled to Chad, where they were disarmed and interned. Elsewhere in South Darfur, officers have changed into civilian clothes and made for the border with South Sudan (Sudan War Monitor, November 27).

SAF Leader General al-Burhan (BBC)

As it consolidates control of Darfur, the RSF is now poised to begin operations against al-Ubayd, the capital of neighboring North Kordofan. The RSF has already driven away the SAF’s garrison in the western Kordofan town of al-Mojalid and the nearby Balila oilfield (a joint Sudanese-Chinese project), despite intensive airstrikes by the SAF (Asharq al-Awsat, October 31; al-Taghayeer [Khartoum], November 27).

Where Do Armed Opposition Movements Stand?

The war of the generals has finally shattered the hard-won 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (JPA), which promised a new era of peace in Sudan by reconciling the government with the nation’s leading rebel movements. However, two of the most powerful movements rejected the process entirely. In practice, the JPA has been described as “a mechanism to disburse political patronage to a few key rebel leaders.” [1]

One of the principal armed movements in Darfur is the largely Fur-based Sudan Liberation Army of Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLA-AW). The group helped launch the 2003 rebel attacks on the SAF that sparked nearly two decades of war in Darfur (Darfur means “abode of the Fur”). The movement was not a signatory to the JPA and is not part of North Darfur’s Joint Protection Force. Nonetheless, General Yusuf Karjakula led a group of SLA-AW fighters from its Jabal Marra stronghold to al-Fashir in late November where they deployed to protect IDP camps from RSF assaults (Sudan Tribune, December 3). The general also met with SAF and JPF commanders, suggesting the SLA-AW may be considering joint operations to defend al-Fashir despite long-standing distrust of the SAF.

Many of the armed opposition movements have begun to split internally over the issue of alignment with the RSF or the SAF (for the rebel movements, see Terrorism Monitor, August 8). Even Minni Minawi’s faction of the SLA is experiencing divisions between its SAF-supporting leader and its military commander, General Juma Haggar, who supports the RSF (Sudan War Monitor, December 4). The Sudan Liberation Army-Transitional Council (SLA-TC), led by Al-Hadi Idris Yahya Farajallah, is considered close to the RSF, though the movement’s vice-president, Salah al-Din Abdel-Rahman al-Ma’rouf “Salah Rasas,” is considered to be a supporter of the SAF (Sudan War Monitor, December 4). A new faction of JEM under Sulayman Sandal Haggar split from the movement in August 2023 after some JEM members charged leader Jibril Ibrahim with backing the SAF (Darfur24, August 30).

Some rebel leaders are attempting to remain neutral, like Al-Tahir Abu Bakr Hajar, leader of the Gathering of Sudan Liberation Forces (GSLF), though some of his men were reported among the defenders of Nyala (Sudan War Monitor, October 26).

Foreign Intervention in the Sudan Conflict

There are allegations of foreign interference in the conflict, notably support for the RSF from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia’s Wagner Group, as well as Ukrainian support for General al-Burhan’s SAF.

Alleged Ukrainian Sniper on Ridge Northwest of Omdurman (Bellingcat)

Al-Burhan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met in Ireland on September 23 to discuss responses to the pro-RSF activities of the Russian Wagner Group in Sudan (Kyiv Independent, September 23; Sudan Tribune, September 23). The meeting came days after the release of videos alleged to show Ukrainian drone attacks on RSF forces in the Sudanese capital (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, November 14). Since then, videos have emerged of Ukrainian snipers operating in the hills northwest of Omdurman, as geolocated by independent investigative collective Bellingcat (, October 7). There have also been videos released on November 6, allegedly showing personnel of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Intelligence engaging with RSF fighters, Wagner personnel, and members of Russia’s special forces in the Sudanese city of Omdurman (Kyiv Post, November 6; Sudan War Monitor, November 10).

Journalists seeking confirmation or denial of these activities have been referred to the words of Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service HUR MOU (Holovne upravlinnja rozvidky Ministerstva oborony Ukrajiny), who stated last May that “we have killed Russians and will continue to kill Russians anywhere in the world, until the complete victory of Ukraine” (New Voice of Ukraine, May 17). RSF leader Hemetti has expressed his support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his paramilitary force is alleged to have engaged in gold smuggling with Wagner operatives in exchange for arms and advisors.

Small operations of the type allegedly engaged in by Ukraine in Sudan ultimately have little influence on the outcome of the war. However, they do diminish the local reputation of Wagner operatives who have helped finance Russia’s war in Ukraine by smuggling gold from regions of western Sudan under RSF control.

General Yassir al-Atta

General Yassir al-Atta (deputy to al-Burhan) stated that military intelligence and diplomatic sources had confirmed that the UAE was shipping supplies to the RSF through neighboring countries, including Chad. The allegation was denied by authorities in the UAE (Radio Tamazuj [Juba], November 29). The UAE is Sudan’s main trading partner, has been a major investor in Sudan in recent years, and is the primary destination for gold smuggled out of western Sudan. Al-Atta’s description of the UAE as a “mafia-state” led to a breakdown in diplomatic relations between the two countries (Radio Dabanga, December 11).

Atta’s remarks also incensed Chadian authorities. On December 11, they demanded an official Sudanese apology for claiming the UAE had been allowed to ship weapons and munitions to the RSF through Chad. N’Djamena promised to take “measures” if the apology did not come within three days (Sudan Tribune, December 11). Darfur governor Minni Minawi had already accused Chadian authorities of allowing the passage of arms and mercenaries through Chad to the RSF in mid-November (Radio Dabanga, November 17).

There are further allegations that the Zaghawa generals who control Chad’s powerful military are annoyed by the UAE’s support of the mainly-Arab RSF and are providing clandestine support to their Zaghawa kinsmen in JEM and the SLA-MM (Sudan Tribune, December 7).

Destruction of Khartoum

Little remains in SAF hands in Khartoum other than the much-battered army headquarters and a small patch of Khartoum North (Bahri) connected by the SAF-controlled Blue Nile rail bridge. Khartoum’s al-Jaili refinery, the largest fuel production facility in Sudan, was destroyed in a bombing on December 6, the fourth such bombing of that location since the war began. Both the RSF and the SAF accuse the other of being responsible for the destruction (Sudan Tribune, December 6). RSF posts are dispersed throughout Khartoum; in the SAF’s attempt to find and destroy them, large parts of the city have been smashed by airstrikes and artillery, including many of its most notable buildings.

The RSF now controls all of Khartoum State, with the exception of the SAF-controlled pockets in Khartoum and northern Omdurman. RSF patrols have been spotted recently in eastern Sudan, possibly preparing the way for an occupation of that region. Twenty-five miles south of Khartoum, the strategic Jabal Awliya military base and airport fell on November 20 after a siege and two-day assault, removing a major obstacle to a RSF incursion into White Nile State (Radio Dabanga, November 21).


The SAF is highly demoralized and suffers from high rates of desertion and defection. Resistance to the RSF is collapsing in many parts of the country, diminishing hopes for a negotiated settlement. There are thousands of dead, soldiers and civilians alike. The country’s GDP is expected to decline by 18 percent this year due to the war (Africa News, October 12), with over half the population in need of humanitarian assistance. Six million Sudanese are displaced and cut off from normal avenues of support. As famine approaches, the only trade activity that still works is the import and distribution of arms, despite an international embargo.

Civilian groups that had previously discovered the power of the people when overthrowing President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 have now discovered that they have zero influence in the current military power struggle. Most alarming is the emergence of patterns of ethnic and tribal violence that have ways of resisting political settlement while perpetuating grievances both new and traditional. Focused on self-enrichment, the RSF’s barely literate leadership has no rational plan for reviving the state. There is little chance that the RSF’s military success can translate into a brighter future for Sudan’s 46 million people.


[1] Amar Jamal, “Key Actors in the Juba Peace Agreement: Roles, Impacts and Lessons,” Rift Valley Institute Research Report, September 14, 2023, p.16,

Russia in the Red Sea (Part Three): Converging Wars Obstruct Russian Plans for Naval Port in Sudan

Eurasia Daily Monitor 20(176)

Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC

Andrew McGregor

November 14, 2023

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 and the expanded war has pulled some of the Kremlin’s attention to the Middle East and North Africa. The conflict gives fresh impetus to Russia’s interest in establishing a stronger foothold in the Red Sea region. Russia’s war against Ukraine and the ongoing power struggle in Sudan have derailed Moscow’s efforts to establish a naval port in Sudan. The Wagner Group has allied with one side of the fight, which has hurt Russia’s prospects, especially if the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan prevail (see Terrorism Monitor, April 28, May 26, June 9). In addition, recent drone attacks in Khartoum, possibly of Ukrainian origin, suggest Kyiv may be trying to challenge Russia’s military contractors in Africa (The Moscow Times, September 20). The outcome of the fighting in Sudan will have important implications for the Kremlin’s efforts to establish a stronger military presence in the Red Sea region.

Before these geopolitical upheavals, Russia seemed well on its way to setting up its planned naval base. In 2017, an agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir called for the establishment of a Russian base at an unspecified location on Sudan’s Red Sea coast in return for arms and other military gear from Moscow. Operated by 300 Russian servicemen, the base would support as many as four Russian naval vessels at a time (see EDM, December 6, 2017).

Map showing location of Arakiyai (Abdul-Razak M Mohamed).

By 2021, the new Sudanese government began having second thoughts about the deal and sought new terms that included economic aid (The Arab Weekly, September 16, 2021). Initially, Moscow had hoped that the base would be established in Port Sudan, building on existing infrastructure there. Khartoum, however, suggested a new base be built from scratch at Arakiyai, a remote fishing village so small it does not appear on most maps (Radio Dabanga, December 7, 2021). Without supporting infrastructure or sufficient fresh water, the Arakiyai suggestion was meant to cool Russian designs on Sudanese waters.

Port of Suakin

The only other viable option would be the ancient Arab port of Suakin. Originally built to accommodate shallow draft dhows, the British moved operations from Suakin to Port Sudan when it became clear that Suakin could not accommodate deep-draft naval and commercial ships. Dredging has since improved access, but the construction of new facilities would take years (Middle East Eye, September 30, 2022).

The ancient coral city of Suakin, with the modern ‘Uthman Diqna port in the background.

In 2022, Sudan’s military rulers appeared ready to finalize a treaty authorizing the establishment of a Russian naval base at Port Sudan. The leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemetti”), took the lead in most of these negotiations. He arrived in Moscow on February 23, one day before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with a delegation that did not include any SAF representatives. Hemetti expressed surprise that anyone might find a Russian base in Sudan controversial (Africanews, March 3, 2022).

Port Sudan is a politically unstable city that serves as Sudan’s primary connection to international trade routes. The city is riddled with ethnic rivalries and tribal divisions that could threaten any foreign military presence there. Port Sudan is separated from the Nile Valley by 250 miles of sun-baked desert inhabited almost entirely by Arab and Beja nomads. This isolation makes port operations and onward transportation of goods vulnerable to any group that could block the intersection of roads and narrow-gauge rail connections with the Nile.

Such interruptions do happen as a result of tensions between three major ethnic groups in the region; the Beja, the Bani Amer and the Nuba. [1] Scores have been killed in clashes between these groups since 2018. Swords, spears and knives were the weapons of choice until firearms were introduced to these street-fights, increasing the death toll. At times, the RSF has been called in to restore order.

On September 18, the SAF clashed with a Beja militia in Port Sudan led by Shibah Dirar, former leader of the militant Eastern Front. Dirar claims to support the army but would prefer they stay out of eastern Sudan (Al-Jazeera, September 21). SAF units arrived after Dirar’s men set up a checkpoint for all traffic leaving the port, allegedly to prevent a “fifth column” from smuggling supplies to the RSF (Radio Dabanga, September 19). With much of the government’s administration currently operating from Port Sudan rather than Khartoum, panic spread as residents feared the gunfire announced an RSF attack (Sudan Tribune, September 18). It was the latest in a series of Beja interventions; most notably, the Supreme Council of Beja closed all operations at the port for six weeks in September-October 2021. Dirar tried to shut the port down again in December 2022, even as it was still trying to recover from the 2021 shutdown (Al-Taghyeer [Khartoum], December 9, 2022).

There is, however, no unanimity of opinion in the various tribal groups that make up the Beja people, which include separatists, Islamists, reformers and even supporters of the discredited al-Bashir regime. On May 4, the Port Sudan office of UN envoy Volker Perthes was stormed by protesters demanding his departure, many of them old regime supporters (Sudan Tribune, May 4).

The outbreak of fighting in and around Khartoum may squash any chances for the establishment of a Russian naval base in the near future. Videos circulating on X (formerly Twitter) on September 14 depicted a series of attacks by first-person view (FPV) kamikaze drones in Omdurman against RSF fighters and vehicles ( Noir, September 14; September 14). FPV drones are cheap and commercially available and can be easily modified to carry the warhead of a rocket-propelled grenade. The drone pilot, wearing video goggles, controls the low and fast flight of the explosive drones with the assistance of a spotter drone that selects targets and records the results.

Such capabilities could threaten a prospective Russian base should the fighting in Sudan continue over the long term. FPV drones have become commonplace in Ukraine, but this constituted their first appearance in an African conflict (both the SAF and RSF use other types of drones). The tactics seen in the videos resemble those used by Ukrainian forces, and parts of the videos appear to display Ukrainian text on the drone controller’s monitor. When questioned by journalists about the attacks, Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov simply said, “A year ago, I personally and openly said that all Russian war criminals who fought, are fighting, or plan to fight against Ukraine will be punished anywhere in the world” (, September 23).

Possible Ukrainian involvement in Sudan led to a flurry of diplomatic efforts by Moscow and Kyiv. On September 21, General al-Burhan spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York. Lavrov indicated Moscow’s support for al-Burhan and the SAF’s efforts to stabilize Sudan despite Wagner’s association with the RSF (TASS, September 21). Two days later, al-Burhan met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Defense Minister Rustem Umerov for “unscheduled” talks at Ireland’s Shannon Airport (Kyiv Independent; Sudan Tribune, September 23). Zelenskyy reported that the two leaders discussed the activity of illegal armed groups financed by Russia (i.e., Wagner). Afterward, Zelenskyy said he was “grateful for Sudan’s consistent support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (Anadolu Agency, September 23). These developments point to Ukraine potentially pursuing a policy in Africa that will challenge Moscow’s Wagner gambit. According to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, “Our strategy is not to replace Russia but to free Africa from Russia’s grip” (Africanews, August 17).

Russian Navy frigate Admiral Grigorovich visits Port Sudan in 2021 (AFP).

Perhaps most troubling for the Kremlin is the inherent political instability of Sudan. Even before the current power struggle, regional insurgencies, tribal clashes, mass demonstrations, and coup attempts have characterized the country’s political process. The months-long struggle between Sudan’s two most powerful military commanders is reducing the national capital to rubble and has had a similar effect on Khartoum’s international commitments. A Russian deal with one military faction is unlikely to be honored by the other, leaving a possible Russian base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast in limbo. The SAF leadership is convinced that Moscow now controls the Wagner Group following Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny and death, with the mercenary group supplying the RSF with arms and munitions. As a result, a victorious SAF would be unlikely to approve a Russian naval base and official military presence in Sudan.

There is a possibility Sudan could be cut off from aid and grain supplies should the presence of Russian (or other foreign) forces in Port Sudan draw attacks from their present or future rivals. The risk seemed remote until recently, but if Ukrainian special forces are indeed operating drones in the Sudanese capital, the danger of hosting a foreign naval base in Sudan’s most strategic location begins to come into focus. The consequences for Sudan of any extended shutdown of Port Sudan would be catastrophic.


  1. Today’s Beja are the heavily Arabized descendants of a group who have lived in eastern Sudan for six to seven thousand years. Arabic is now the dominant language, but many still speak the original Beja language, To Bedawie. The Bani Amer are a confederation of local peoples, largely Tigrayan and Beja, first assembled under an Arab ruling caste. They speak Tigrayan, To Bedawie and Arabic. The Black African Nuba, Muslim and Christian, are relative newcomers to Port Sudan. Many were driven out of their homes in the Nuba Hills of Southern Kordofan during the severe government suppression of the Nuba in the 1980s and 1990s, finding work on Port Sudan’s docks and construction projects.
  2. The close ties between the RSF, Russia and the Wagner Group are examined in “Putin’s New Russian Empire is Suddenly on the Rocks: How the War in Ukraine Threatens Russian Interests in Sudan,” AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.3, March 24, 2022.

Russia’s Phantom Military Exercise in Algeria: Is the War in Ukraine Damaging Moscow’s Ability to Project Power and Influence Abroad?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 8

December 2, 2022

Over the last year, growing military ties between Russia and Algeria seemed to be at odds with Algeria’s traditionally non-aligned approach to international affairs. Algeria’s leadership seems intent, however, on continuing to pursue a policy of deriving maximum benefit from both the West and Russia, generating enormous revenues from providing gas to a desperate Europe while entering a military dalliance with Russia that requires little commitment from Algiers but promises access to modern weapons that could support Algeria’s determination to be regarded as a “regional power” by the international community.

“Exercise Desert Shield,” a mysterious two-week joint Russian-Algerian military exercise in the isolated Hammaguir region of Béchar in the Algerian desert suggests that Russia may be experiencing difficulty in providing both the arms and troops necessary to project Russian power and influence abroad as a result of its war on Ukraine.

Map of Algeria showing Béchar beside the Moroccan border.

On the evening of November 28, the day the exercise was to conclude, the Algerian Ministry of Defense used national television to make the surprising announcement that no such deployment had taken place: “This joint military exercise was scheduled as part of cooperation with the Russian army within the framework of counter-terrorism. However, it did not take place” (, November 29, 2022; Atalyar [Madrid], November 29, 2022).

The Ministry further suggested that such an exercise had never reached the organizational stage, but with detailed reports of such organization (including timing, numbers, location, scope, etc.) appearing in international media for nearly a year without refutation, the timing of the Ministry’s denial seems extremely late and exceedingly odd. At the time of publication, the Kremlin had not issued a comment on the affair.

Official Russian news source Sputnik reported on November 15 that the counter-terrorist exercise would begin the next day (Sputnik [Moscow], November 15, 2022). The announcement was strange, given that by November 15, the Russian Ministry of Defense would likely have been aware the exercise had either been cancelled or had never been approved by Algiers in the first place. Did Algiers cancel the exercise at the last minute under pressure from Europe and the United States, or were highly-trained members of the hard-pressed Russian military simply unavailable at the last minute? The former seems likelier, as the latter would indicate an almost unimaginable loss-of-face for the Russian military, especially as Defense Ministry agents and Wagner Group operatives seek to convince restless African states that Russia can be a reliable and professional ally in place of Western nations like France or the United States.

Diplomatic and International Consequences

Algeria’s growing ties to Russia, its status as the world’s third-largest purchaser of Russian arms and its refusal to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine led 17 Members of the European Parliament to call for a reassessment of EU relations with Algeria on November 17 (, November 17, 2022). The sale of Russian arms provides badly-needed revenues Moscow needs to continue its war on Ukraine, but the catch is that Moscow’s battlefield needs must take precedence over military exports.

Well armed by Russia and other sources, Algeria’s 130,000-man military is both large and politically influential. An oil-revenue-powered willingness to deploy modern military weaponry helps ensure its sovereignty and secures its substantial energy reserves.  Algeria, Africa’s largest exporter of natural gas, has been able to take advantage of Europe’s misguided energy “green shift” to fill its foreign exchange coffers at a time when Russia seeks to apply pressure on Western Europe by restricting oil and gas exports. Italy has been at the front of the European queue for Algerian gas, signing a deal in July to import billions of additional cubic metres via an undersea pipeline from the North African coast.  The resulting windfall has helped Algeria double its military budget.

Morocco Reacts to Russians on its Borders

Moscow has been mildly supportive of Algeria in its diplomatic cold war with Morocco over the disputed status of the Western Sahara. Algeria’s arms buildup and military cooperation with Russia naturally alarms its western neighbor, though it is not without its own resources and contacts. Algeria and Morocco severed ties in August 2021 and Algeria’s plan to assume the largest military budget in Africa by increasing its defense budget by 130% in 2023 is of great concern in Rabat. To draw NATO’s attention to the matter, Moroccan media has tried to portray Russian military activities in Algeria as a threat to southern Europe.

While Algerian troops were supposed to be receiving Russian training, Moroccan paratroopers from the 2e Brigade d’Infanterie Parachutiste joined a company of Britain’s Parachute Regiment for “Exercise Jebel Sahara,” three weeks of training in November that included a six-day war game with live fire exercises. Morocco’s 2e Brigade’s operational history includes a confrontation with Algerian forces during the 1963 “Sand War.” Morocco also conducted a 25-day joint exercise with French forces in March 2022 in a new military zone along the border with Algeria.

Despite experiencing major differences since both nations achieved independence, Algeria and Morocco have avoided an all-out war, preferring to fight through proxies in the Western Sahara while using national media to snipe at the allegedly perfidious behavior of the other side.

Increased Algerian-Russian Military Cooperation

The first joint exercise involving Russia and Algeria occurred in October 2021, when Algerian forces joined counter-terrorist exercises conducted in North Ossetia. Less than a year later, one hundred Algerian troops were part of the September 2022 Vostok (“East”) combined arms exercise held in the Russian Far East. Algeria was the only African nation invited to participate, joining 50,000 troops, 140 warplanes and 60 ships from Russia, China, India, Belarus, Central Asian states, and several other Asian nations.

Russian and Algerian Troops in North Ossetia, October 2021 (Algeria Press Service)

This Russian-sponsored recognition of Algeria’s military helped promote pro-Russian attitudes in parts of the Algerian officer corps. The exercises were observed in person by Vladimir Putin, turning them into a kind of show of support for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine. In Algiers, participation was confirmation that Algeria was now recognized as a “regional power.”

Though the French government expressed little interest in Algeria’s participation in the exercise, it alarmed former French foreign intelligence chief Alain Juillet, who expressed concern: “Very close to us, on the other side of the Mediterranean, there is a country that ultimately works with the Russians and that obviously does not agree with what is happening in Europe” (VA+, November 6, 2022).

Algerian-Russian Naval Exercises

Algeria’s Navy has also intensified cooperation with Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean. Joint tactical exercises in November 2021 were followed by a three-day visit to Algiers in July 2022 from two ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the hydrographic/intelligence ship Kildin and the oil-tanker Vice Admiral Paromov. In September 2022, there were reports of a Russian Navy minesweeper participating in joint exercises with the Algerian navy out of the small port of Jijel. Still trying to perfect a balancing act between the West and East, the modern commercial port of Djen Djen (10 km from Jijel) hosted the American Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Farragut on September 19 for a short training exercise with the Algerian navy.

Russian Intelligence Ship Kildin, Algiers (Ministry of National Defense-Algeria)

In October a four-day Russian/Algerian exercise in the Mediterranean involved the Stoikiy (545) and the Soobrazitelny (531), both Stereguschchiy-class corvettes of Russia’s Baltic Fleet (TASS, October 21, 2022). Algeria is still awaiting delivery of several corvettes of this class from Russian shipyards, though under current conditions, delivery may occur well in the future, if at all.

Algeria has also expressed interest in acquiring four Russian Project 22160 patrol ships. However, the poor performance of these ships in the Ukraine conflict has forced the Russian Navy to abandon plans to build more ships of this class.

The Exercise that Never Was

Exercise Desert Shield was supposed to be the first time Russian troops have operated on Algerian soil, with some 80 to 100 Russian Special Forces members joining a similar number of Algerian troops. The exercise in Béchar was to focus on detecting and eliminating terrorist formations in desert conditions.

The French Rocket Facility in Colomb-Béchar

Only 50 kilometers from the tense border with regional rival Morocco, Béchar (known as Colomb-Béchar in colonial times) was home to a Foreign Legion post before it became the first home of France’s space and ballistic missile program in 1947. The base remained in the hands of the French Air Force until 1967 (five years after Algerian independence), when it was finally transferred to Algerian control under the terms of the 1962 Evian Accords. Most of France’s space program relocated to French Guiana.

According to reports, the exercise was to include training on the tactical use of Russian-made BMP infantry fighting vehicles (Atalayar [Madrid], November 15, 2022). Algeria is interested in purchasing the latest variant of the BMP, but enthusiasm may be dampened by the vehicle’s performance in Ukraine, where some 200 have been destroyed, abandoned or captured. Replacing these vehicles may cause a delay of several years before the manufacture of export versions can resume.

Political Influence May Follow Ammunition Supply

While Algeria would assert its foreign policy is strictly non-aligned, it is commonly viewed in the West as receptive to the influence of Russia and China. This, in consequence, determines the degree of cooperation and engagement Algeria experiences in its relations with the West.

A key question is how long Algiers is prepared to be seen as a possible or potential ally of a Russian nation that is unable or unwilling to extricate itself from a conflict that has had enormous costs in material, lives and reputation. Security partnerships are customarily sought with states with a proven history of military success. The failure so far of Russia’s armies, training and equipment to overcome a former Soviet republic does not increase its attractiveness in this regard.

Trade is in decline between Russia and Algeria while the US remains the largest source of foreign direct investment in Algeria. China is a rival to Russia’s wooing of Algeria, convincing Algiers to sign on to its “Belt and Road Initiative” (a.k.a. the New Silk Road) as well as agreeing to a $7 billion phosphate extraction scheme. Both Algeria and Morocco are major consumers of Chinese arms; Algeria’s navy operates three Chinese-built Adhafer-class frigates and is awaiting delivery of six Chinese Type 056-class corvettes. Morocco and Algeria have also both purchased Chinese-made military drones.

Last year’s deal enabling an Algerian purchase of $7 billion worth of Russian arms, including advanced fifth-generation Su-57 multi-role fighter-jets, alarmed many members of the US Congress. An October 2022 letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken from a bipartisan group of US congressmen called for sanctions against Algeria under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on the grounds that such arms sales would help finance the Russian war in Ukraine:

It is critical that President Biden and his administration prepare to sanction those who attempt to fund the Russian government, and its war machine, through the purchase of military equipment (al-Arabiya, September 29, 2022).

Some sources suggest the $7 billion deal may soon be supplanted by a $12 to $17 billion agreement that would see Russia provide military supplies to Algeria for ten years (Asharq al-Awsat, November 2, 2022).

The new model Su-57 multi-role fighters would augment Algeria’s existing stock of Russian-made MiG-29 and Su-30 fighter-jets, though sanctions affecting the availability of electronic and other parts are making it difficult for Russia to meet its own needs. Russia’s stocks of arms, armored vehicles, warplanes, missiles and ammunition are greatly depleted at the moment. The training and maintenance personnel that normally accompany large transfers of arms will also likely be unavailable for some time. Russian efforts to make up its battlefield losses are already hindered by manpower shortages in the defense industry. There is every chance Russia will not be able to meet its commitments under the existing deal with Algeria, much less expand it going forward.

Export revenues for Russian arms are already well off this year. It will take years for Russia to rebuild its military regardless of the success or failure of its war on Ukraine. In the meantime, Algeria might turn to China or Turkey to make up the arms deficit without having to deal with the human rights complications that might be involved in dealing with Western nations (Middle East Eye, September 1, 2022). Otherwise, there will be intense competition with other African and Middle Eastern nations reliant on the Russian arms industry for weapons, parts and ammunition. If Russia is unable to supply its clients, there may be lasting damage to the Russian arms industry. Based on tactics being used in the Ukraine war, there may be a new global emphasis on purchasing drone technology rather than conventional weapons systems, and it will be Turkey’s Bayraktar drones that will be in the highest demand based on their performance in Ukraine.

In the meantime, the war has threatened Algeria’s heavily subsidized food supply and forced a local ban on exports of many categories of food earlier this year, depriving Algeria of revenues. It is yet another collateral consequence of Russia’s war on Ukraine.


Algeria will undoubtedly continue to act cautiously when formulating its foreign relations – alignment with Russia and/or China could easily turn into an unwanted political and strategic liability. In this respect, Algiers appears determined to keep its options open; despite lingering bitterness in Algeria over the conduct of French forces during Algeria’s War of Independence (1954-1962), high-ranking French authorities have made visits to Algiers in recent weeks, including Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and President Macron.

Putin meets Tebboune in January 2020 as Egypt’s al-Sisi looks on (Fabian Sommer)

Algerian president Abdelmajid Tebboune is scheduled to visit Moscow this month to sign an agreement concerning a Russian-Algerian strategic partnership (Al-Monitor, November 15, 2022; al-Mayadeen [Beirut], November 30, 2022). The threat of Western sanctions in the event of an Algerian alliance with Russia appears to have caught the attention of Algeria’s government. Even if implementation of such sanctions is unlikely with the prospect of parts of Europe facing a long, cold winter without Algerian gas deliveries, the threat alone may at least make Algiers think twice about intensifying cooperation with Moscow.

How African Jihadists Are Exploiting Russia’s “Food War” in Ukraine

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 7.

November 9, 2022

Dogon Hunters

Islamist extremists in Mali are attempting to prevent the harvest of various food crops, vitally needed in the midst of food shortages and rising food prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this year the jihadists tried to prevent farmers from planting, but Malian troops were sent to guard the farmers. Now, with the harvest ready to start, farmers are again coming under fire in their fields. Militia leader Youssouf Toloba has called on traditional hunters of the Dogon ethnic-group to support the Malian military in its efforts to protect the farmers (Le Soir de Bamako, October 17, 2022). Toloba is the so-called “chief of the general staff” of the Dan Na Ambassagou, a group of Dogon hunters who have formed a “self-defense” militia to defend the Dogon from Islamic State and al-Qaeda-associated jihadists operating almost at will in Mali.

The Black Sea Corridor and Global Food Security

The jihadists are following Russia’s lead in weaponizing food security. For months after the February invasion of Ukraine, Moscow imposed a blockade of the Ukrainian Black Sea coast, the only real means of exporting Ukraine’s massive production of grain and other food products to the rest of the world.

A July 22 agreement negotiated by the UN and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to allow the shipment of Ukrainian grain and fertilizer through Russia’s naval blockade is set to expire on November 19. By October 19, negotiations with Russia for an extension to the Black Sea safe corridor had already begun to founder after Ukraine invited UN experts to examine the remains of Russian drones allegedly made in Iran. A Russian diplomat warned that any “illegitimate investigation” into the drones’ origins would force Russia to “reassess” its collaboration with the UN (Reuters, October 19, 2022).

On October 29, Russia suspended the agreement, warning of potential danger to ships defying Russia’s blockade. This time the cause was an alleged Ukrainian attack on Russian warships at the naval port of Sevastapol. The alleged attack, using both naval and aerial drones, was said to have damaged several ships, including a modern Admiral Grigorovich class frigate (NATO reporting name “Burevestnik”), probably the Admiral Makarov, flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet since the April 14 sinking of the old flagship Moskva by Ukrainian Neptune missiles ( [Kiev], November 1). Russia admits only to damage to a minesweeper. The Admiral Makarov and other ships of the Black Sea fleet are valuable targets, having been used to launch Kalibr cruise missiles into Ukraine during Russia’s ongoing missile offensive.

Russia’s defense ministry claimed to have captured an intact UAV used at Sevastapol and examined its memory to determine it had flown along the safe corridor. The ministry suggested it may have been launched from one of the civilian ships carrying Ukraine’s agricultural products (al-Jazeera, November 3, 2022). Moscow has also claimed that Russian food exports remain restricted by sanctions and other measures despite assurances provided in the Black Sea safe corridor agreement.

However, Russia’s warning failed to stop shipments of Ukrainian grain and sunflower oil; a new record was in fact set on October 31 for shipping Ukrainian goods through the safe corridor established in July (354,000 tonnes). With the Turkish president once more taking the role of mediator to assure the continuance of the agreement, vital to world food supplies, Russia was left with a hard choice; continue issuing ineffective warnings that would ultimately become embarrassing if they continued to be ignored, attack international cargo ships carrying grain and oil from Ukrainian ports (which would produce global condemnation, even from its allies), or accept Turkish mediation efforts. The latter course was chosen and resulted in “written guarantees” from Ukraine promising that the safe corridor or Ukrainian ports would not be used for attacks on Russian naval ships (BBC, November 2, 2022).

The war has put enormous pressure on global food markets, and there is no guarantee Russia will renew the export agreement in mid-November. It would, however, be in Moscow’s interests as the alternatives are not promising. Once Russia tries to enforce a blockade of the Black Sea corridor, it loses all its leverage. At that point, there would be no reason for Ukraine not to continue attacking the apparently vulnerable Russian Black Sea fleet. The move would also cause damage to the relationship with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has performed a valuable role as mediator between the Kremlin and the West. Food insecurity leads to political insecurity – Moscow stands to lose the quiet support it has in many parts of the developing world if food-laden freighters start going to the bottom of the Black Sea.

The Food Crisis

Among these developing nations is insurrection-torn Mali. Mali imports 14% of its food. In 2019, the top countries from which Mali imported food products included Brazil, South Africa, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and France. While neither Ukraine nor Russia figure largely in Mali’s food sources, global shortages in grain, cooking oil and other products affected by the conflict in Ukraine create competition for diminishing supplies, increased food prices and even civil insecurity.

Mali’s military, known for severe measures against civilians (torture, illegal detainment, summary execution) and for internal fighting while ignoring the terrorist threat, has lost respect in many areas of the country. Having failed to provide security in wide swathes of the nation, government security forces are being replaced by local, ethnically-based “self-defense” militias largely beyond any type of government control. Sometimes well-armed, these militias often attempt to resolve tribal disputes with soaring rates of violence. The worst of Mali’s internal ethnic conflicts is between the agricultural Dogon community and the pastoral Fulani (a.k.a. Fula, Peul, Fulbe). With a spiralling death-rate, the original disputes between farmers and herders over access to land and water have become secondary to the perceived need to meet extreme violence with greater violence.

The Dogon

The Dogon homeland is found along the 93-mile long Bandiagara escarpment, slightly north of Mali’s border with Burkina Faso. The region’s unique geology and cliff-side architecture led to it being recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1989. The Dogon arrived in the area sometime in the 14th or 15th century, displacing the Tellem (Dogon – “We found them”), who practiced a Stone-Age hunting culture. Most Dogon continue to practice a highly ritualized polytheistic religion, though the 20th century witnessed the growth of significant Christian and Muslim minorities. A centralized leadership does not exist, with each village governed by its own elected spiritual and political leader, the hogon.

The Dogon in Mali (Joshua Project)

The Dogon are best known to the outside world through their elaborate ritual masks and, unfortunately, a persistent pseudoscientific delusion that the Dogon, without any type of telescopic instruments, possess highly advanced astronomical knowledge. Though Afro-centrists have advanced the theory that the skin pigment melanin allowed the ancient Dogon to see minute details of incredibly distant star systems with the naked eye, the Dogon knowledge of astronomy was most likely gained in 1893 when a team of French astronomers stayed with the Dogon for five weeks. When French anthropologists recorded Dogon knowledge in the 1930s, they mistakenly included their limited astronomical knowledge as part of the Dogon belief system. In modern years, the “ancient astronaut” and New Age crowd consider Dogon astronomical knowledge as the result of early visitations to the Dogon by extraterrestrial fish-men from the Sirius star system. [1]

Dogon Cliff Dwellings in Bandiagara

In reality, the Dogon practice sedentary agriculture, which has sometimes brought them into conflict over land rights and access to water with their semi-nomadic Muslim Fulani neighbors, whose culture and economy is built around raising cattle. Such disputes were customarily resolved by community elders who recognized the symbiotic relationship between herders and farmers. In recent years, however, traditional conflict resolution methods have begun to fail due to loss of farmlands to desertification, growing numbers of cattle, external provocation of the Fulani by Muslim extremists, an absence of government control and a proliferation of automatic weapons. The latter has helped replace negotiable and individual incidents of violence with large-scale massacres that have no apparent resolution for their victims other than retribution in kind.

Like their neighbors in Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, the Dogon include a fraternity of traditional hunters known collectively as the “Dozo Ton” (Hunters’ Fraternity). Typically clothed in brown garments, the Dozo conduct secret rituals and initiations and wear amulets intended to make them bullet-proof.

Amidst growing insecurity in 2016, the Dogon Dozo formed a self-defense militia called the Dan Na Ambassagou (“Hunters who trust in God”). In recent years the Dozo hunters have added automatic weapons to their traditional arsenal of flintlocks, leading to charges from the Fulani that Mali’s deposed government was arming the hunters as a means of farming out the war against Islamist extremists. According to a Dan Na Ambassagou leader, the militia has indeed provided guides for patrols of the Forces Armées du Mali (FAMA – Armed Forces of Mali) (Reuters, April 19, 2019). Survivors of several massacres of Fulani civilians have identified the Dogon Dozo as the perpetrators.

Mamadou Goudienkilé, president of the Dan Na Ambassagou movement and a former captain in the Malian army, claims the hunters are not simply targeting Fulani:

The Fulani are our neighbours, we are ready to live with them. We are fighting the jihadists, not the Fulani. If the jihadist is Fulani, we fight him, if he is Dogon, we fight him too. But I repeat: this war is not between the Fulani and the Dogon…  (Le Point [Paris], April 13, 2020).

The Fulani

To counter the Dogon Dozo hunters, Mali’s Fulani attempted to consolidate their own local self-defense groups into the larger Alliance pour le Salut au Sahel (ASS – Alliance for the Salvation of the Sahel) in May 2018. The militia’s leader, who goes by the pseudonym “Bacar Sow,” maintained the Fulani are as much victims of the jihadists as any other Malian community, pointing as well to decades of government neglect fueling the intercommunal violence:

The areas where we operate have been abandoned since independence. In these areas, there is a lack of water, electricity, infrastructure and development. There are no schools, there are no roads, no health center. All that is necessary for the development of man is sorely lacking in us… Since [independence in] 1960, the various governments have done nothing and a total social disorder has taken hold (Monde Afrique, March 25, 2019).

Amadou Koufa (Jeune Afrique)

The Dogon, Bambara and other ethnic groups believe the Fulani cooperate with regional jihadists, a belief reinforced by the emergence of the mostly Fulani Katiba Macina extremist group in 2015. Led by Fulani imam Amadou Koufa, a veteran of Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din (Supporters of Religion), the group joined the al-Qaeda-connected Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin (Support Group for Islam and Muslims – JNIM) in 2017. In a November 2018 video, Koufa appealed for an ethno-religious Fulani insurrection in seven African countries (RFI, November 9, 2018). Koufa was declared dead by Malian authorities later that month following a French military operation, but re-emerged in a February 28, 2019 video mocking both the French and Malian security forces.

The Fulani are repeatedly targeted by the mostly Bambara Malian army, which often treats all Fulani as terrorists, Islamist extremists or supporters of the jihad groups that have spread their activities from Mali’s north to its central region since 2013. A degree of animosity between the Muslim Fulani and non-Fulani peoples of Mali (including other Muslims) dates back to the great theocratic Fulani kingdoms that dominated the region in the 19th century.

The jihadists, who have suffered serious losses in recent years, are reported to have recently begun pressing young men into their ranks, summary execution being the alternative to recruitment. Once absorbed into the ranks, each recruit is issued a weapon and a motorcycle (Le Soir de Bamako [Bamako], October 18, 2022).

In the last two years, JNIM jihadists, including Katiba Macina, have been in steady conflict with rival jihadists of the État islamique au Grand Sahara (EIGS – Islamic State of Greater Sahara) after some members of Katiba Macina defected to the Islamic State.

Fulani Herders on the Niger River, Mali (TVC News).

In an attempt to strengthen their position in the region two years ago, JNIM militants tried to mediate between the Dogon and Fulani communities. The point was to try and end clashes between the groups that made jihadist expansion difficult while severing Dogon ties to the state. These efforts were initially successful, allowing farmers and herders to operate in peace, but ultimately, they collapsed, marking a return to intercommunal violence and interruptions in the local food supply (Reuters, August 28, 2020).

Before his 2020 overthrow and subsequent death in January 2022, Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta sought to explain the growing hostilities between Fulani and Dogon:

The violence and cleavages we are witnessing are an outgrowth, a contagion of what has happened in the North [of Mali] over the past decade. As part of their expansionist and hegemonic project, jihadist terrorists have exploited the bankruptcies and weaknesses of the administrative network to insinuate and spread an exclusive speech of hatred, all under the guise of religion (Jeune Afrique, July 2, 2019).

Militia vs. Military

The militias all cite the same reason for their formation – the inability or unwillingness of government security forces to secure their communities from attacks and property theft, especially in the last four years. Malian security forces rarely make an appearance during the attacks, regardless of their proximity to the attack or its duration, citing shortages of men and equipment and even the difficulty of operating in the dark.

 Marcelin Guenguéré

Illustrative of the military’s declining prestige was the reaction of Dogon villagers when a truck full of soldiers arrived in the town of Koro to arrest Marcelin Guenguéré, spokesman of the Dogon Dan Na Ambassagou militia and a suspect in violent attacks on the Fulani. Video shot by the militia showed the troops being driven away by chanting, rock-throwing locals and Dogon hunters. Ignoring the president’s order to dissolve the Dan Na Ambassagou, Guenguéré declared that any attempt to disarm the militia “could provoke a rebellion that will not be so easily contained” (Reuters, April 19, 2019). Mamoudou Goudienkilé, president of Dan Na Ambassagou, insisted that “Before disarming ourselves, we should already disarm the jihadists who are killing our people, stealing our cattle and burning our villages!” (RFI, March 10, 2021).

Youssouf Toloba (Malivox/Youtube)

The movement’s military leader, Youssouf Toloba, pointed out the president could not dissolve the group as he “wasn’t the one who created it.” Toloba added that his movement had signed a cease-fire agreement in return for a government pledge to secure the Dogon homeland, “but then nothing was done…” (VOA, March 25, 2019). Toloba provided his interpretation of the role of the Dan Na Ambassagou to a French newspaper:

We do not accept being called bandits or militia on the understanding that, in general, the term “militia” has a negative, even pejorative connotation. We are not a militia, we are rather resistance fighters like those who, in France, during the Second World War, took up arms against the Germans who were the invaders (Le Point [Paris], April 3, 2021).

Toloba has repeatedly called for a combat alliance between FAMA and the hunters, claiming the latter possess invaluable intelligence regarding the position and the operations of the jihadists (Nouvel Horizon [Bamako], May 10, 2022).

Sékou Allaye Bolly

Other Fulani have joined non-Islamist self-defense militias, such as the one led by Sékou Bolly, a Fulani businessman who formed a loose alliance with the pro-government, Tuareg-dominated Mouvement pour le salut de l’Azawad (MSA – Movement for the Salvation of Azawad) and absorbed former jihadists in his militia who passed through the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process. [2]

Cooperation between Guinguéré and Sékou Bolly in the interest of establishing peace angered elements in both the hunter and Fulani communities, who regarded it as a betrayal of their interests. In turn, Guinguéré and Bolly have both demanded that Youssouf Toloba submit to the state following accusations the militia leader has abandoned the mission of defending Dogon communities in favor of extortion and the looting of resources (Le Wagadu [Bamako], January 13, 2021).

Dan Na Ambassagou fighters clashed with JNIM militants (likely part of the Fulani-based Katiba Macina) last May. The katiba (battalion) had been pressuring local Dogon communities to join a government-sponsored attempt to create local non-aggression agreements with the jihadists (Nouvel Horizon [Bamako], May 16, 2022).  Toloba opposed these “wacky peace deals” with jihadists:

Why would we cede our land to strangers? The goal of the jihadists is to subjugate us. To sign an agreement with them is to betray the Malian state, which is secular. These agreements entail the application on the ground of sharia, which we do not want (Le Point [Paris], April 3, 2021).

Massacres at Ogossogou and Moura

On March 23, one of the worst slaughters in modern Mali’s history occurred at the Fulani village of Ogossogou in the Mopti region of central Mali. Nearly 160 Fulani civilians perished in the brutal attack, allegedly carried out by the Dan Na Ambassagou. Many of the dead were hacked to death by machetes while others were burned alive in their homes. Typical of such attacks, all farm animals were either killed or carried away, leaving the survivors to starve without assistance.

Colonel M’Bah Ag Moussa (Malijet)

The assault occurred one day after JNIM jihadists claimed responsibility for a March 17 attack on the FAMA garrison at Dioura (Mopti region) in which 23 soldiers were killed and a substantial quantity of arms and military gear seized by the assailants, who arrived by motorcycle and automobile. The JNIM statement (carried by its media arm, al-Zallaqa) said the attack was retribution for the government’s “heinous crimes” against the Fulani, but denied the Dioura attack was led, as claimed by the government, by a two-time FAMA deserter, Colonel M’Bah Ag Moussa “Abu Shari’a” (a.k.a. Bamoussa Diara). (Defense Post/AFP, March 18, 2019; Africa Times, March 24, 2019). [3]

Youssouf Toloba’s Dogon and Sékou Bolly’s Fulani militia had conducted successful mixed patrols in the region until the Ogossogou massacre. Bolly loudly accused Dan Na Ambassagou of responsibility for the attack, ending the possibility of further joint patrols. When Toloba was asked about a UN accusation of Dan Na Ambassagou responsibility, he asked: “Did the United Nations catch Dan Na Ambassagou attacking the village?” (Le Point [Paris], April 3, 2021).

Da Na Ambassagou spokesman Maracelin Guenguéré insists, improbably, that the Ogossogou massacre was in fact carried out by other Fulanis, not Dogon: “I can assure you of one thing, today everyone can have access to a hunter’s outfit. These are not hard to get outfits… There are Fulanis who are in conflict with other Fulanis. They manage to kill each other and pretend that it is the Dogons who killed them” (Le Point [Paris], June 20, 2019).

Less than a week after the Ogossogou affair, a March 27 FAMA/Russian raid on the Katiba Macina-held town of Moura was followed by five days of bloodletting, with over 300 civilians murdered after a brief firefight with a small group of 30 armed jihadists, most of whom escaped. The dead filled three mass graves they were forced to excavate first. The attackers indulged in days of rape and looting, as well as the destruction of motorcycles, commonly used by the jihadists. Using FAMA interpreters, the Russians separated Fulanis from other ethnic groups, explaining they needed to be killed as all Fulanis were supporters of jihad (Human Rights Watch, April 5, 2022).

Retaliation at Sobane Da

Retaliation for the Ogossogou massacre came on the night of June 9-10, when an attack on the Dogon village of Sobane Da was carried out by some 50 gunmen on motorcycles or pick-up trucks.  Over eight hours the attackers, identified by the survivors as Fulanis, disembowelled many of their victims and burned women, children and the elderly alive inside their huts (, June 11, 2019; Le Monde [Paris], June 11, 2019; Le Point [Paris], June 20, 2019). At least 35 villagers were killed. Dogon leaders later claimed the Fulani militia of Sékou Bolly committed the atrocity in revenge for Ogossogou.

According to Da Na Ambassagou spokesman Marcelin Guenguéré:

The people who attacked us, those terrorists, those jihadists, I assure you that these are people we know, these are our Fulani neighbors who are with us on Dogon territory. I do not incriminate all the Fulani, but it is the Fulani who live with us who are at the origin of all this, they have their agenda (Le Point [Paris], June 20, 2019).

On June 18, 2022, the Katiba Macina slaughtered 132 civilians near Bankass, in the Mopti region of central Mali. On July 20, an assault by the militants on the town of Kargué was badly defeated by Dan Na Ambassagou fighters, who killed 53 of the attackers (Le Pays [Bamako], July 22, 2022). On July 23, the katiba attacked the Kati military base outside of Bamako, killing a soldier and demonstrating an unsuspected ability to reach right into the heart of Mali’s military structure.

There seems no end to the cycle of violence – Russian Wagner personnel and Malian troops were accused of massacring 13 civilians in the Fulani village of Guelledjé on October 30 (Africanews/AFP, November 1, 2022). Idrissa Sankaré, a leading official of the Tabital Pulaaku Mali (a civil Fulani umbrella group) recently warned a gathering of Fulani leaders: “Malians must understand that we are condemned to live together, to accept each other mutually to defend our homeland together, to avoid suspicion, amalgamation, hatred… not wanting to live in together is to want to disappear together” (Maliweb, August 31, 2022).

Forecast – The Shift to Moscow

Like a number of other African nations, Mali is now turning to Moscow for security assistance after French counter-terrorist forces withdrew in February. Mali has received an influx of fighters from the Russian Wagner network as well as Russian jet-fighters, mobile radar systems and transport and attack helicopters. Local pro-Russian activists organize demonstrations demanding a Russian presence in Mali -their funding comes from a Wagner-associated mining company with access to Malian gold deposits. Malian authorities, likely with encouragement from Russian disinformation specialists, claim French aircraft collect intelligence for the jihadists and deliver them shipments of arms. [4] Russians patrol the grounds of the presidential palace in Bamako; France’s President Macron has suggested the new military regime is looking to the Russians for protection rather than help in fighting terrorists.

The Black Sea transit agreement expires on November 19. Even if the shipping corridor remains open, the total amount of Ukrainian grain and other agricultural products shipped remains small, somewhere around one-tenth of what still awaits export. Some 77 empty freighters are off Ukraine’s ports, awaiting their loads of grain and sunflower oil.

Mali’s minister of the economy, Alousseini Sanou, visited Moscow in the first week of November. In an appearance on Malian state TV, Sanou announced Russia was sending aid to Mali in the form of 60,000 tonnes of petroleum products, 30,000 tonnes of fertilizer and 25,000 tonnes of wheat. The shipment was first discussed in an August phone call between Putin and Colonel Assimi Goïta but has yet to be confirmed by the Kremlin (Reuters, August 11, 2022; al-Jazeera, November 3, 2022; Agenzianova [Rome], November 3, 2022).

If the Russian supplies do materialize, it will provide some relief for Mali, but with jihadists shooting farmers in their fields it will not provide a long-term solution to the diminishing food supply and intercommunal violence, violence that the introduction of private Russian military contractors has only exacerbated. After a meeting with the Turkish defense minister on November 3, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg identified the cause of the growing food crisis being exploited by the jihadists for their own benefit:

The increased prices and the problems we have seen in the global food market are not caused by sanctions. It is caused by the war itself… It is the war of aggression that is undermining and threatening the supplies of food from Ukraine to the world market. The grain deal helps to reduce the effects, but the lasting solution will be to end the war and that’s Russia’s responsibility… [5]


  1. See, for example: Temple, Robert K.G: The Sirius Mystery: New scientific evidence of alien contact 5,000 years ago, (2nd ed), London, 1999 (1st ed. – 1976).
  2. Aurélien Tobie and Boukary Sangaré: The Impact of Armed Groups on the Populations of Central and Northern Mali: Necessary Adaptations of the Strategies for Re-establishing Peace, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 2019, p. 10.
  3. Ag Moussa was a mixed Tuareg/Bambara considered close to JNIM leader Iyad ag Ghali. He received his military training in Libya and was a native of Kidal region in Mali’s north. Military commander of JNIM since 2017, Ag Moussa was killed in a carefully planned French attack in the Gao region on November 10, 2020. Sidi Mohamed ag Oukana, Ag Moussa’s half-brother, remains Iyad ag Ghali’s senior religious advisor. See “French Troops Kill JNIM Military Leader Colonel Bah Ag Moussa Diara: What are the implications?” AIS Militant Profile, November 20, 2020,
  4. Last month, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop demanded an emergency session of the UN Security Council to address Malian allegations that France was providing weapons, ammunition and intelligence to jihadist groups (Le Témoin [Bamako], October 25, 2022).
  5. NATO Press Conference, Istanbul, November 3, 2022,

The Wagner Group: The Kremlin’s Dirty Arm

A PolskieRadio24 Interview with Dr. Andrew McGregor

November 3, 2022

Any involvement of the Wagner Group has to be approved by the Kremlin and is usually negotiated through the Russian Ministry of Defense; its operations abroad are supervised by the FSB or, more often, the GRU – says Dr. Andrew McGregor, director of Aberfoyle International Security, in an interview with

Ewa Zarzycka, portal  Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin, who admits to creating the Wagner Group?

Yevgeny Prigozhin is responsible for financing the Wagner “Group,” which is really a network of contract soldiers, disinformation specialists, election manipulators, VIP security personnel and a variety of companies focused on resource extraction. He has no known military background or expertise, having moved up from sausage-maker to restaurant owner to Kremlin caterer. A personal friendship with Vladimir Putin dating back to their days in St. Petersburg accounts for most of his success.

Does he command this private army, or is he merely its political protector? Does Prigozhin want to make a political fortune from the successes of the Wagnerians in Ukraine?

With no personal military expertise or training, Prigozhin does not oversee Wagner ground operations, this task being given to senior members of the network, usually with experience in the GRU. Prigozhin does not fund the network’s operations (which in most cases are not particularly lucrative), but acts more as a funding middleman and administrator.

Prigozhin recruits for Wagner Group in a Russian prison colony.

Prigozhin is a creature of Vladimir Putin and his fortunes are closely tied to those of the president. Prigozhin was recently reminded of this point when he began to publicly criticize Russian generals and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, another personal friend of the president. Prigozhin’s spokesman was dragged from his car and badly beaten by members of the Russian National Guard, a force personally loyal to Putin and led by the president’s former judo sparring partner.

How large is the group, and how armed. Is it a private company or does it use state financial and material resources (armaments)?

The size of overseas deployments ranges from 100 (security and advisory services) up to 2,000 (combat operations) depending on the duties undertaken. American estimates suggest there are roughly 8,000 Wagner personnel in Ukraine.

Arms and uniforms are typically identical to those used by Russian regular forces. Russian-made armored personnel carriers or infantry fighting vehicles are often deployed on foreign operations, though these are not always the latest models. In some cases, such as Libya, Russian warplanes (absent their national insignia) were deployed with Wagner pilots. The Wagner network often acts as a conduit for Russian arms supplies to client nations.

Was it Prigozhin first with his idea, or was it first the idea (of the Kremlin?) and then Prigozhin? When did the Kremlin stop pretending that it was a private company?

With strict laws in the Russian Federation against mercenary activities, it was Vladimir Putin who first suggested in a 2012 speech that there might be some room for the establishment of private military contractors (PMCs) in Russia. The next year, the Slavonic Corps, a Hong Kong-registered PMC recruited from Russian veterans, was deployed in Syria. The mission was an utter disaster, partly because of lack of support from the Russian military, and the leaders of the Corps were prosecuted in Russian courts.

However, the deployment did suggest to Kremlin insiders that a new private military force with stronger ties to the Russian regular forces and intelligence services might be a means of furthering the financial interests of Kremlin insiders abroad and, to a lesser extent, Russian national interests. The main appeal was the plausible deniability that came with a PMC with no official existence or visible ties to the Russian government.

What is the attitude of the Americans towards the Group? Do they treat them as a legal formation in understanding international law. After all, they also have Blackwater themselves?

Taking legal action against “the Wagner Group” is complicated by the fact that, on paper at least, no such group exists. The US has thus applied sanctions against Prigozhin, his associates and the many registered entities that form the Wagner network. There is an ongoing debate in Washington over whether the “Wagner Group” should be declared a “Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).” Those who oppose the designation refer to the amorphous nature of the Wagner network and suggest its personnel can be tried instead under existing international laws against war crimes and crimes against humanity. New legal approaches are being developed that would treat Wagner operatives, not as independent “mercenaries,” but as members of a de facto arm of the Russian government.

Though Blackwater and its successor groups have been employed by the US government, especially to allow the withdrawal of US regular army and National Guard personnel, such groups do not figure in the foreign policy of the US in the way Wagner network operatives are used to further Russian goals. Another difference lies in accountability; when Blackwater operatives committed a massacre in Baghdad in 2007, they were eventually prosecuted and convicted by US courts (though all were eventually pardoned by Donald Trump in 2022). Abuses by Wagner personnel are ignored by Moscow, which continues to disclaim any responsibility for their actions.  American diplomatic intervention in recent days appears to have persuaded the military junta ruling Burkina Faso to abandon plans for a widely-expected Wagner deployment.

Is the Kremlin the only “employer” of the Group?

The Kremlin routinely denies any connection to the Wagner network. All deployments of Wagner personnel must, however, meet with Kremlin approval and are typically negotiated through the Russian Ministry of Defense. Wagner operations abroad are overseen by personnel of the FSB (successor of the KGB) and, more often, the GRU.

What is the Group’s relationship with the Kremlin? Putin denies such links, but could the Group develop without the Kremlin’s approval?

As mentioned, all Wagner deployments must meet with Kremlin approval. Any attempt to operate outside Kremlin oversight would quickly result in prosecution under Russia’s strict prohibitions against mercenary activity. In this sense, Wagner operatives are not “mercenaries” in the usual understanding of the term.

Where the Group has operated and continues to operate, officially or unofficially. The main field of activity is Africa and the Middle East (Syria?). There are rumours that in Africa, the Group earns money for the Kremlin. It is also said the Group makes money (for Kremlin) in some unspecified way (exploiting natural resources, e.g. gold). This sounds very mysterious to me. Could you add something on this subject? Can this money change the fate of the war in Ukraine? What part of the Group is fighting in Ukraine and what part is making money abroad? They are badly needed in Ukraine?

Nations or disputed regions in which Wagner personnel or other Russian contractors have had a verifiable presence include Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Venezuela, Sudan, Mali, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Central African Republic and Ukraine. These deployments are typically paid for by contracts giving Wagner-related companies access to natural resources, especially in the mining sector. Profits are directed to Kremlin insiders rather than the state budget. Financing the Russian war in Ukraine relies mostly on proceeds from Russia’s domestic oil and gas industries rather than Wagner-associated operations.

Statue Honoring the Wagner Group in Bangui, Central African Republic (VOA)

A Russian manpower shortage in the current Ukraine campaign has led to many Wagner operatives working abroad being recalled for service in Ukraine. This has reduced their activities in places such as Libya while reasserting the idea that Wagner personnel are under the control of the Kremlin.

Regarding the nationality of the recruits, is it an international formation, similar to the Foreign Legion, or does it recruit only Russians?

The Wagner network recruits in a variety of East European countries, including Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and Serbia. In the MENA nations, Wagner recruits both Syrians and Libyans; there are unverified reports some of these have been deployed in Ukraine.

Central Asian nations provided Wagner recruits until recently, when most of these nations banned Wagner recruitment. Wagner does not accept recruits from NATO or EU countries. Wagner has little in common with the French Foreign Legion, which is now a fully integrated part of the French regular army and highly selective in its recruiting. Unlike Wagner, the Foreign Legion no longer accepts recruits with a serious criminal record. Wagner is more like the old private armies of the British East India Company, the French East India Company and the Dutch East Indies Company, all of which contributed to the overseas interests of their home nations (particularly through the exploitation of resources and labor) without coming under the formal command of their respective national militaries.

Spain, France, Ukraine, Israel, Great Britain, the United States, Saudi Arabia and many African states continue to recruit foreign nationals for their militaries. Some offer citizenship after completing a set number of years in military service.

Wagner-produced movie “Granite” about Russian contractors in Mozambique.

There is much talk about recruiting criminals into the Group for whom army service can shorten their sentences and earn money. By the way, how much money can a criminal volunteer expect per month , and how long the training would last. Does any insurance company cover them? The risks are very high.

To address Russian manpower shortage in Ukraine, Evgeny Prighozin began recruiting in Russian prison colonies, offering six-month contracts with the promise of commutation of their sentences if the convicts survived. Despite offering a blunt assessment that 80% of prison recruits would not survive the enlistment period, the prospect of serving long sentences in Russia’s miserable and overcrowded prisons has helped enable recruitment.

As little as a week of training is provided to prisoners before deployment to the front lines. This is understandable given that prison recruits function much in the same way as Soviet penal battalions in WWII; they are used in frontal attacks designed, not to take objectives, but to force Ukrainian forces to fire, thus revealing their concealed positions to Russian forward artillery observers (Russian military doctrine relies heavily on the use of massed artillery). Prisoners may be offered less than the usual Wagner rate of $4000 per month, but since full payments are usually made to Wagner operatives only at the end of their contract, many will never collect. They are not covered by insurance and offers to provide compensation to families of dead prisoner-recruits are rarely committed to paper and thus worthless.

Some six-month enlistments and their subsequent commutations of sentence are reported to be for sale to rich inmates in Russian prison colonies. Purchasers are advised to lie low outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg until six months have passed, at which time they can emerge safely with no criminal record.

How do the Russians treat the Group’s activity? Do they regard them as patriots, experts in dirty work or common criminals?

It is difficult to gauge Russian popular opinion in the absence of a free media. Abandoning a policy of keeping a low profile within Russia, Wagner has recently been hailed by Kremlin-controlled media as an important element on the frontlines in Ukraine. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, little was ever said in Russian media regarding Wagner activities. Russian perceptions of Wagner thus tend to be based on Kremlin propaganda efforts and Wagner’s own public relations department, which produces films, statues, t-shirts, Facebook pages and billboards praising the work of Wagner personnel.

The Wagner Group is not the only private army in the world. How many are there? Moreover, how are they used by other governments?

It is very difficult to say how many “private armies” there are in the world. Part of the problem is a matter of definitions – is every private armed security company a “private army”? Private Military Contractors (PMCs) tend to come and go in the marketplace. Some, like Blackwater, change their names on a regular basis. Some can be very dangerous; others, like the Atholl Highlanders, the last private army in Europe before the emergence of the Wagners, are purely ceremonial.

Employment of “private armies” by national governments can be undertaken for the following reasons:

1/   National militaries lack the arms or skills to prevail in a security crisis;

2/  National forces may be regarded as uncommitted or even a threat to regime survival;

3/  National forces may be insufficient in numbers to address an ongoing security threat;

4/   A regime may wish to take severe measures against its internal enemies through the short-term use of unaccountable troops.

Rather than operate as a “private army,” Wagner operatives have experienced close integration with Russian regular forces in recent months despite occasionally violent rivalries between the two forces.

Wagner is not an elite unit, and was never designed or intended for use on European battlefields in a conventional war. The use of poorly-disciplined veterans (many with troubled service records or criminal convictions) and volunteers seeking an early release from Russia’s prison colonies can in no way tip the scales of the Ukraine conflict in Russia’s favor. Instead, their use side-by-side with Russian regulars has merely served to dispel the pretence that Wagner operatives have no connection to the Russian state, severely diminishing their usefulness abroad. Wagner’s brutal methods, its failure to subdue jihadist or rebel movements and its devotion to profit over security will ultimately backfire in most of its foreign deployments. As a means of establishing a broad Russian geo-political presence in resource-rich and strategically important nations, the Wagner approach and its rapid spread has alarmed the West.  However, so long as Wagner personnel remain unaccountable to any authority, even despite now clearly-established ties to the Kremlin, short-term success can only be followed by long-term failure.


Aberfoyle International Security is a Toronto-based independent consulting firm specializing in international security analysis. According to the US press in 2011, among the materials found in Bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout there were more than 50 articles written by its current director, Andrew McGregor.

Partisan Warfare in Melitopol: Ukrainians Attack Armored Train, Assassinate Collaborators

AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 6.

May 25, 2022

During the dangerous years that followed the German invasion of the Soviet Union in WWII, Ukraine gained a much-deserved reputation for intense partisan warfare designed to liberate the motherland from Nazi control. Most of the partisans fought within the Soviet framework of Josif Stalin’s Kremlin, itself the cruel perpetrator of a Ukrainian genocide in the 1930s, but others fought both Soviet communists and German Nazis in the interest of establishing a free and independent Ukraine.

The city of Melitopol is an important industrial center in Ukraine’s south-eastern Zaporizhzhia oblast (administrative region). Melitopol suffered greatly while occupied by the German Army from October 1941 to October 1943, with its entire Jewish population eliminated by SS Einsatzgruppen death squads. During the occupation, bands of partisans roamed the Zaporizhzhia region, risking certain death at the end of a noose to disrupt rail transport and pounce on isolated patrols or collaborators.

Decades later, the partisans have returned, but instead of working to expel Hitler’s executioners, they are now committed to driving out occupiers from a similarly sinister regime, represented by Vladimir Putin’s corrupt and merciless collection of thugs and war-criminals. Typically, the partisans are civilian fighters operating behind enemy lines with support from the Ukrainian Special Forces and have been especially active in Zaporizhzhia.

Poster for the Ukrainian “Day of Heroes.” The figure in front of the Red and Black flag represents the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets during WWII and continued to battle Russian communists until 1949.

After Ukraine finally shed the Soviet yoke in 1991, Melitopol enjoyed three decades of peace and prosperity until Putin’s Russian legions stormed Ukraine, justifying the slaughter of innocents, bizarrely, as a necessary step in “de-nazifying” its independent neighbor.  When a Russian amphibious force entered Melitopol on February 26, 2022, Russian government-controlled media reported that “Melitopol residents welcomed the Russian troops… some elderly citizens took to the streets waving red [Soviet-era] flags” (TASS [Moscow], February 5, 2022). Undermining these dubious claims of a popular welcome is the fact that the city was not fully occupied until March 1.

Partisan Attack on an Armored Train

Known as “the Gateway to the Crimea,” Melitopol is an important rail junction for trains running between Moscow and the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula. It is unsurprising then that certain individuals somewhat less enthused about the arrival of the Russian occupiers than the Soviet-flag wavers mentioned in the official account have targeted rail infrastructure around Melitopol, including an apparently successful attack on one of Russia’s modernized armored trains. [1]

A ten-car Russian armored train heading northeast from Crimea through Melitopol was either destroyed or seriously damaged on May 18 by local partisans assisted by Ukrainian special forces. Local media reported that an explosive placed on the rails detonated under a rail-car carrying Russian military personnel, producing an unknown number of casualties and causing damage to the train and the rails (Ria-Melitopol, May 18, 2022; Ukrayinska Pravda, May 18, 2022). These reports seemed to indicate a massive failure in the sophisticated bomb-detecting sensors and electronics installed in Russia’s armored trains in recent years.

However, according to the (Ukrainian) Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration (ZRMA), the train was not destroyed by a bomb, but was rather derailed by saboteurs. The widely-reported explosion was, according to ZRMA, the result of an ammunition shipment that detonated when the train overturned. The ZRMA added that the Russian occupiers are constantly running overloaded trains on the tracks without providing the necessary maintenance (Express, May 19, 2022).  The claim was startling, as Russia maintains brigades of railway troops (Zheleznodorozhniki –ZhDK) specializing in security, repair and maintenance activities. It is not inconsistent, however, with the revelations of incompetence in the Russian command. The attack was not the first on the line; on April 28, Ukraine’s Special Forces destroyed a railway bridge in the Zaporizhzhia region used to carry fuel and military goods from Crimea to Melitopol (Pravda [Kiev], April 28, 2022; Ua.Interfax [Kiev], April 28, 2022).  

The Shavgulidze Wedge

If the Melitopol armored train was indeed derailed, it was probably through the use of a particularly useful but simple device known as the Shavgulidze Wedge. Invented in WWII by Georgian inventor and partisan leader Tengiz Shavgulidze, this 20-kilogram steel device can be installed on rails in just a few minutes and effectively derails entire trains. The beauty of the device is that it allows a train to be derailed without the use of explosives, an important factor in avoiding detection by the bomb-sniffing equipment carried by Russian armored trains.

Reports indicate the blast on the rail-line was followed by machine-gun fire, though it is not clear if the latter was the product of a gunfight with saboteurs or the response of nervous and panicky Russian troops. A locomotive following the armored train to the front with ten tankers of fuel and lubricants was forced to stop until the damaged armored train was removed by two large cranes and the twisted tracks repaired (, May 18, 2022). Melitopol’s mayor, Ivan Fedorov, later warned that “the earth will burn under the feet of the invaders… the armored train is just the beginning” (Express, May 19, 2022).

The Covert Struggle in Melitopol

Partisan activity in and around Melitopol is keeping the Russian occupiers on edge, especially those servicemen who were assured by their commanders of a hero’s welcome as liberators. Nervous troops are often responsible for atrocities against civilians, a self-defeating response as brutal acts of retaliation have historically often stiffened the opposition rather than intimidate it.

At the time of the armored train attack, Melitopol’s mayor reported the death of more than 100 Russian “occupiers” in over 20 “resistance operations” since the start of the Russian invasion (, May 18, 2022). Ukrainian forces have been intensely occupied with the discovery and elimination of pro-Russian saboteurs working behind Ukrainian lines; earlier this month, the Ukrainian Security Service announced it had eliminated 140 enemy sabotage groups working behind Ukrainian lines and rounded up 4,000 pro-Russian collaborators (Facebook, May 6, 2022).

Other than the poorly-armed and lightly-equipped pro-Russian militias in the now-ruined Donbas region, Russian authorities have had great difficulty in their efforts to recruit and field pro-Russian militias in Ukraine, apparent proof that Ukrainians are not seeking freedom from the cabal of “Nazis and drug-addicts” that Moscow insists are ruling the country. The dismissal of top Russian intelligence officials charged with these efforts suggests that even Russia’s security forces did not take Putin’s threats of invasion seriously until it was too late to organize pro-Russian partisan groups. Russian manpower much needed on the Donbas front is thus forced to search for partisans in southern Ukraine with little local cooperation.

The explosion of a hand grenade next door to the Russian military HQ in Melitopol on the same day as the train attack brought on wild fire from Russian troops. Two senior officials of the Russian occupation had been assassinated in the street earlier in the day (KyivPost, May 18, 2022). Five days later, in another part of the Zaporizhzhia oblast, a pro-Russian mayor appointed by Moscow and his two bodyguards were wounded in an attempted assassination by partisans, with the Kremlin describing the incident as a “terror attack” (Moscow Times, May 23, 2022). Posters showing Russian soldiers suffering death at the hands of partisans have also begun to appear in the occupied regions of Zaparizhzhia.

Partisans alone cannot drive the Russian Army from Ukraine, but their activities do raise questions about the viability and expense in blood and treasure of a permanent occupation of Ukraine. If even a Ukrainian defeat cannot enable the enforcement of the Russian writ in Ukraine due to partisan resistance, then the entire rationale for the invasion and its prospects for success is open to question. If Putin’s own intelligence chiefs understood this, there is little wonder that they quietly believed the Russian leader’s threats were just bluff and consequently few preparations were made  to create a network of Kremlin loyalists inside Ukraine prior to February 2022. Censorship and media manipulation may have helped create some kind of popular consensus in favor of the war inside Russia, but the men around Putin are fully aware of the difficulties they will face in occupying Ukraine. It was, after all, their grandfathers and grandmothers who took to the woods and marshes to make Germany’s occupation of the Soviet Union unsustainable.


  1. For more on the armored trains and their role in the Ukraine conflict, see: “Rail War in Ukraine: The Battle for Logistical Superiority Will Determine the Victor,” AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 5, May 2, 2022,

Rail War in Ukraine: The Battle for Logistical Superiority Will Determine the Victor

AIS Special Report on Ukraine no. 5

May 2, 2022

“Breaking the railway supply lines of the enemy — which is the most efficient means of supply — can radically change the situation in our favor.”

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, March 17, 2022.

Russian Armored Train Enters Ukraine

Russian missiles struck five railway stations and rail hubs in western and central Ukraine in just one hour on April 25. The attacks were meant to inhibit the transportation by rail of European and North American arms and supplies to Ukrainian military forces. Three days later, Ukrainian Special Forces blew up a railway bridge in Yakymivka (Zaporizhzhia Region of Ukraine) used by Russian forces to deliver fuel and military supplies from Crimea to Melitopol and beyond (Pravda [Kiev], April 28, 2022; Ua.Interfax [Kiev], April 28, 2022). The rail war in Ukraine is very real and victory provides the key to success for either side.

Intensified Russian efforts in late April to destroy Ukrainian rail infrastructure marked a change in Russia’s strategic approach; prior to that, Russian forces appeared intent on seizing as much of the rail system intact as possible. Russia’s ground forces simply cannot operate at any significant distance from its rail-lines, having as a result of its vast distances and climatic challenges an almost hereditary attachment to rail-supply at the expense of other means of distributing war materiel and supplies.  When it became obvious a Russian drive on Kiev, dependent on a mismanaged and neglected fleet of supply trucks, was not going to work, Moscow backed away from the northern theater to concentrate on eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Donbas is an industrial area well-covered with rail lines, allowing truck resupply of the frontline from rail-cars along short supply lines.

Purpose-built military trucks are in such short supply after nearly two months of fighting that inadequate civilian trucks incapable of off-road operations are now being pressed into service. Many truck losses appear to have simply been the result of poor maintenance, related in equal part to corrupt practices in the officer corps and a reliance on quickly-trained short-service conscripts to keep machines, goods and personnel moving (CNN, April 14, 2022).

Ukraine’s Rail System

Ukrainian Railways (Ukrzaliznytsya) is a massive operation, encompassing some 13,500 miles of rail, 1450 stations and 230,000 employees. Ukraine’s first railway was built by British troops in Crimea in 1855 during the war between Russia and the British, French, Ottoman and Sardinian alliance. Russian forces destroyed the line after the allied troops had left. It was an ignominious start for what eventually became a massive rail network.

Ukrainian Rail System

Keeping Ukrainian railcars moving in the midst of a war has been a major challenge, especially after Ukrzaliznytsya was charged with the task of moving millions of refugees to Ukraine’s western borders; at one point, 190,000 people were being moved each day. Damaged rail is a constant threat and, lacking anything like Russia’s corps of railway troops, civilian employees have found themselves carrying out repairs under fire. By April 1, over 70 Ukrzaliznytsya employees had been killed in Russian attacks (Kyiv Independent, April 1, 2022). Schedules must be altered daily after accounting for reports of damage to rail lines or their seizure by Russian forces. One way the Ukrainian rail has adjusted has been to decentralize control of the rail lines, with regional managers assuming more autonomous roles while top executives work from mobile command posts in disguised rail cars, moving every few hours to prevent being targeted by Russian forces (CNN, March 14, 2022). Railway employees have also helped defense efforts by producing anti-tank “hedgehogs” from rails in the shops.

According to the Ukrzaliznytsia chairman, Russian forces are now continually shelling Ukrainian infrastructure, including trains, rail stations and the quarters of railway workers (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, March 19, 2022). An April 8 missile attack using cluster munitions on the Kramatorsk rail station in Donetsk region killed as many as 59 people and wounded over 100 others.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has urged Ukrainian citizens to attack rail and other parts of the Russian military supply chain with Molotov cocktails and whatever other weapons are at hand (Eurasian Times, March 9, 2022). On March 17, Ukrainian presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych even urged Ukrainians to wage a “total rail war” against Russian forces, especially in the south, where Russian operations threaten to cut Ukraine from the sea (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, March 19, 2022).  

Partisans in Belarus

Most Russian supply trains in the north came through the Belarusian town of Homyel (or Gomel), just north of Ukraine. There have been reports of Belarusian “partisans” sabotaging switches and signals along lines used by the Russian military, while Ukrainian military forces attacked the lines inside northern Ukraine (Express [London], March 21, 2022).

Belarus’ state railway was the target of hacking efforts during the pre-war build-up of forces on the Ukrainian border. Creating turmoil in freight operations, the hack was carried out by the “Belarussian Cyber-Partisans” to oppose the presence of Russian “occupying troops” in Belarus (, January 25, 2022). Cyber-attacks on Belarus Railway’s outdated computer operating systems also helped foul the deployment of Russian military forces (Washington Post, April 23, 2022).

Ukrzaliznytsia chairman Oleksander Kamyshin claimed rail communications between Belarus and Ukraine stopped in mid-March after he appealed directly to Belarusian rail-workers to not carry out “criminal orders” and to instead refuse to carry Russian troops and equipment to Ukraine (Nastoyashcheye Vremya, March 19, 2022).

Reports from the Belarussian opposition in March indicated employees of the state railway company, Belaroeskaja Tsjyhoenka, were sabotaging rail lines used by Russian forces to enter Ukraine (, March 21, 2022). Setting fire to isolated railway signaling cabinets was a common way of disrupting rail traffic without killing Belarusian railway employees, but authorities came down hard, promising terrorism convictions with a minimum 20-year sentence for saboteurs. By mid-March, eight alleged saboteurs had been arrested, with some making televised “confessions.” Their appearance suggested beatings by security forces had occurred (Voice of Belarus, March 11, 2022). Belarusian security forces have diminished the number and degree of sabotage acts by deploying drones and more patrols, but it is too late for the Russians, who have now withdrawn from the northern front.

Even on the Russian side of the border, sabotage remains a threat; on April 12, a rail bridge in Belgorod Oblast (administrative region) near the border with Ukraine was badly damaged in an explosion, forcing a diversion of military supplies (Guardian, April 12, 2022).

Russia’s “Starvation Strategy”  

According to German Minister of Agriculture Cem Özdemir, Russia is not only at war with Ukraine, but with the entire international community. In what he described as Putin’s “starvation strategy,” Russian troops were “deliberately destroying agricultural infrastructure and supply chains” (Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, April 17, 2022). Most of Ukraine’s immense agricultural output is shipped from ports on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. These are now blockaded by the Russian Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimean port of Sebastopol. Ukraine’s main agricultural exports include barley, sunflower oil (50% of world supply), corn (17% of global supply) and wheat (12% of global supply).

Once harvested, grains and other agricultural products must be kept moving through the system to their destinations. With Black Sea ports closed, however, Ukraine is faced with the task of shipping its harvests destined for Africa, Asia and the Middle-East northwest to Baltic Sea ports through a rail system that lacks anything near sufficient capacity (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, April 12, 2022). Shipping by sea is far cheaper than shipping by rail, so the infrastructure for rail-transport of its agricultural production to more distant ports in northern Europe was never developed.

Ukrainian Freight Train (International Railway Journal)

A major complication in connecting to the EU rail network is the difference in rail gauges, up to now regarded as a nuisance that would cost more to correct than endure. Beginning in the 1840s, Russia began using a rail gauge of 1524 mm (5 feet), adjusted in Soviet times to 1520 mm. This was still out of sync with the Standard Gauge of 1435 mm in use in most of Europe, making it impossible to roll a train from one track to the other, a problem independent Ukraine inherited.  When Ukrainian rail wagons reach any of its western borders, they need to be hoisted and set down on new bogies (chassis) designed for standard gauge rail, a process known as “break of gauge transloading.” Expensive and time-consuming, the process is also limited to the number of facilities capable of carrying out this procedure. Engines must also be switched, as they cannot be converted to a change of gauge. Offloading onto European narrow-gauge wagons is possible, but slower and more labor intensive. Ukrzaliznytsya is now trying to purchase additional machinery to speed things up at the border. Grain exports in March were only one-tenth of those a year prior.

To address the issue, Ukraine hopes to have an enlarged transfer station at the Polish border begin moving 50,000 tons of grain per month in July, increasing to 100,000 tons by September (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, April 12, 2022). The Ukrainian Railway Company announced plans in 2020 to build a 1.435 mm gauge track from Lviv in western Ukraine up to the Polish border and through to the old Austro-Hungarian fortress-city of Przemyśl, now part of Poland, but construction in current conditions seems unlikely.

Even after rail-transported grain successfully reaches EU rail-lines, new problems present themselves. Most European nations ship grain by inland water-ways; consequently, they have only a small number of grain cars as part of their rolling stock. As Europe is not the end destination for most Ukrainian grain, this must be shipped to ports in northern Europe, such as Gdansk, though other ports may be needed to handle the shipments (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting, April 12, 2022). Part of the problem could be addressed by an immediate effort to build new fleets of grain cars, but it will be difficult to attract EU or Western investment for such a project. The Black Sea ports must reopen at some point – when that happens, there will be an expensive oversupply of grain cars in Europe.

Other export goods, including minerals and chemicals, are also getting caught in the border bottlenecks. By April 7, half the rail wagons in Ukraine were stuck at the Polish border, waiting for a change of chassis, wagon inspections and EU permits to proceed to the seaport of Gdansk (Reuters, April 7, 2022). Ukraine is also exploring the possibility of exporting its resources by rail through Hungary, Slovakia and Romania – a first shipment of 71,000 tons of corn was moved through the Romanian port of Constanta on April 28. Inability to move Ukraine’s exports will devastate its economy – if the war stopped today, Ukraine still faces years of recovery.

On April 30, Ukraine’s agricultural ministry accused Russian occupiers of stealing “several hundred thousand tons” of grain in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions, warning that farmers might decline to bring in the next crop if they think it will just be taken without compensation. Fighting in Luhansk is already preventing sowing the next crop (RFE/RL, April 30, 2022).

Ninety-five percent of Ukraine’s agricultural exports are shipped from Black Sea ports, meaning the Russian blockade is strangling important hubs for global food supply. Many of the African, Arab and Asian regimes that failed to oppose Putin’s invasion will find themselves battling internal unrest and insecurity due to food shortages – historically a major motivator in changes of regime.

Russia’s Armored Trains and Railway Troops

As trains began to make their appearance in Imperial Russia in the 1830s, there was a growing need for a corps of railway troops with mixed construction, repair and combat capabilities to keep, maintain and protect vital rail connections. Though armored trains had been introduced by World War One and were used extensively during the war and the Civil War that followed, Russia still lost some 60% of its track and 80% of its locomotives and carriages in the two conflicts. After the launch of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, both Germans and Soviets operated armored trains in Ukrainian and Russian territory, occasionally battling head-to-head. After the war, armored trains were operated in Siberia during the Sino-Russian border clashes of the 1960s, and again during the Chechen wars and lingering insecurity in the Norther Caucasus that was threatening Russian rail connections. Russia currently has ten railroad brigades to take care of security, construction, repair and maintenance activities. Military trains and the troops that serve on them (known as Zheleznodorozhniki -ZhDK) have played such an important part in Russian history that every August 6 is celebrated as the “Day of the Railway Troops.”

Even after the loss of vast territories in the Soviet collapse, Russia still operates commercial and passenger trains over 53,000 miles of track. It was a wave of attacks on trains and railway infrastructure in 2009-2010 in the Caucasus and other parts of Russia that brought the current generation of armored trains to Russian rails. [1] Prior to the pandemic, Russia’s Defense Ministry had four armored trains in service to secure its vital rail infrastructure; the Amur, the Terek, the Don and the Baikal. Of these, only the Terek was designed and built to be an armored train, the rest being conversions from passenger stock and civilian locomotives. The Interior Ministry ran its own improvised armored train, the Kozma Minin, during the fighting in the North Caucasus. [2] In 2015, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu cancelled his predecessor’s order to dismantle the armored trains and remove them from service. The Defense Ministry’s four armored trains were instead given an electronics overhaul in 2016, adding radar and anti-mine technology. [3]

Russian supply trains remain susceptible to attack by Ukrainian SU-27 fighters and Bayraktar TB2 drones. A February 28 video released by the Ukrainian Armed Forces purported to show a successful drone attack on a Russian military fuel convoy (Eurasian Times, March 3, 2022). The metal plate of the armored trains is sufficient to protect from small-arms fire and shell fragments, but cannot survive attacks from modern missiles and other weapons, a concern when Russian air superiority has not yet been established. Russia’s armored trains are likely providing escort or reconnaissance services to supply trains coming through Crimea, fulfilling one of the trains’ principal roles – the prevention of sabotage and partisan attacks on rail supply lines. The two remaining trains in the Caucasus may be used to guard military supply trains heading to the Donbas region.

Armored Trains Appear in Ukraine

Moving north from Crimea, a Russian armored train arrived at the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol on February 7 (Novoye Vremya [Kiev], March 8, 2022). [4] According to Russian sources, the train carried away five passenger carriages carrying 248 non-Ukrainian nationals from Kherson to Armyansk in northern Crimea (, March 8 2022).

Russian Armored Train in Ukraine (Illia Pomomarenko, Twitter, March 8 2022)

A second armored train was spotted in the Kherson region of Ukraine a few days later. Also believed to have come up from Crimea, the train was operating on a track with no connection to the line on which the first Russian armored train was observed (CNN, March 10, 2022). An unverified report from Ukraine claimed the train was being used in combat near Mariupol (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 9, 2022).

The armored trains have been cited as symbols of Russian military weakness and reliance on obsolete equipment, inspiring mockery from one Ukrainian media source: “We are waiting for the appearance of military airships in the skies of Ukraine, combat wheelbarrows on the roads, and dueling pistols handed out to the plowmen” (Televiziyna Sluzhba Novyn [Kiev], March 31, 2022).

The approach of the armored trains through Crimea was made possible by the 2014 Russian annexation of the peninsula, which is separated by the narrow Kerch Strait from the Russian mainland. Access to and from the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyans’k on the Sea of Azov can be attained only by passage through the Strait. Defying a 2003 treaty guaranteeing freedom of navigation through the Kerch Strait for both Russia and Ukraine, Moscow took sole control of the strait in 2014. Moscow ordered a bridge built across the strait that opened in 2018; the second phase, a rail bridge, was opened the following year. Perhaps acknowledging the strategic importance of this link for plans to use Crimea as a base for operations in Ukraine, Putin attended the opening, taking the first train across the strait. Prior to this, Russian trains traveling to occupied Crimea were carried across the strait on barges.

In 2021, Russia closed the strait to Ukrainian and American warships from April 24 to October 31. The closure occurred after the US decided to send two destroyers to the Black Sea as a show of strength in response to growing Russian military activity in eastern Ukraine. The Biden administration backed off from the deployment after Putin suggested the Black Sea may be an “unsafe” environment for American naval ships.

The Armored Trains – Firepower

Russian armored trains carry anti-aircraft defenses in the shape of two ZU-23-2 twin 23 mm autocannons developed in the 1950s Soviet Union (MK.RU, August 12, 2016).  The ZU-23-2 was widely used by North Vietnamese forces against American aircraft during the Vietnam War, and later found heavy use in conflicts in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Georgia, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. China reverse-engineered the weapon and made it available for export as the “Type-85” and later offered an upgraded version, “Type-87.” The ZU-23-2 lacks modern range-finding and targeting equipment common to newer anti-aircraft weapons.

Firing the ZSU-23-2 guns of Armored Train Baikal (Dmitry Rogulin)

Though the ZU-23-2s can be used against land targets, the trains’ main ground defenses are provided by outdated T-62 main battle tanks, last manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1975. However, the T-62 still provides defensive firepower with a 115 mm smoothbore tank gun, a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun and a 12.7 mm DShK “Dushka” antiaircraft heavy machine-gun. On occasion, the more modern T-72 MBT may be carried on the train instead of the T-62.

The armored trains also carry a BPM-2 infantry fighting vehicle, armed with a 30 mm autocannon, a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun, a grenade launcher and anti-tank guided missiles. When deployed off the train, the BPM-2 can carry seven soldiers. The tanks and BMP-2s can be taken off the trains to provide mobility and firepower to a desantniy ortryad (raiding team), ready to carry out attacks, conduct surveillance or defend the train.

Electronic jamming equipment prevents the detonation of electronically-triggered IEDs on the railway tracks and disrupts radio communications with blasts of white noise. Pressure-triggered explosive devices typically do little damage to armored trains, which typically run a flatbed car weighted-down with sandbags in front of the train to absorb the shock of such explosions. Track maintenance crews carried on the train are usually able to restore damaged tracks very quickly.

Tactical Pipelines

Russia has tried using tactical pipelines to extend its military operational zones and diminish its reliance on rail tankers and trucks. The Soviets began work on military pipelines in the 1930s as a means of supplying fuel and water to military units under combat conditions.

Russian Tactical Pipeline Layer

Today, portable trunk pipelines can be laid at a rate of 60 to 80 km per day using automated pipe-laying machines. Pipeline troops can install pumping stations and provide defensive and maintenance services to the pipelines, which often tap into existing civilian pipelines or offshore tankers (OE Watch, October 2018). The PMTP-100 collapsible pipelines currently in use can deliver 1200 tons of fuel per day (Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, August 21, 2018). Despite success in exercises, Russia’s pipeline troops appeared to be unable to supply the Russian column stuck without fuel north of Kiev.

Outlook – Consequences for the Donbas Campaign

Russia never intended to take all of Ukraine by force, a fool’s pursuit at best with long-ranging consequences. The Russian plan relied on a lightning strike into Kiev, followed by a change of government, the campaign being supported by a blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. The failure of this plan has led to a withdrawal from northern Ukraine and a new focus on the southern coast and the eastern Donbas region.

Experienced Ukrainian defenders in the Donbas region are well emplaced after seven years of warfare against pro-Moscow separatists and their Russian advisors. This has been confirmed by the slow pace of the new Russian offensive there despite being whipped on by Russia’s grim new commander in Ukraine, General Aleksander Dvornikov.

One of the main Russian supply corridors for the battle for the Donbas region is the rail route from the Russian supply base at Valuyki, established for the purpose in 2015, and the rail-hub of Kupyansk in Ukraine. Kupyansk’s mayor, Hennadiy Matsehora, surrendered the city to the Russians as they approached on February 27 and was later arrested and charged with treason by Ukrainian authorities.

Rail lines from Crimea are being used to supply Russian troops moving eastwards along the northern coast of the Sea of Azov to take Berdyans’k and Mariupal as part of an effort to encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region and cut their supply lines.

Despite the difficult situation, there are still paths to save Ukraine – breaking the rail bottlenecks at the north-western borders would represent a major contribution to this effort, allowing Ukrainian goods to get to market while alleviating a war-induced crush on global grain supplies.  Ukraine must keep its rail lines to the west open to permit revenue-producing exports and allow the inward bound movement of weapons and munitions from the NATO alliance.

While shortages of warplanes and missiles have prevented Ukraine from destroying stalled supply columns in detail and effectively ending the ability of Russia to invade its neighbor, it seems clear that NATO forces with air superiority could have treated the 40 km logjam on roads near Kiev much like the ten-hour “turkey shoot” of an Iraqi column in 1991 on the Kuwait to Basra highway that destroyed at least 1500 vehicles.

Russian military and political objectives are barely attainable due to poor intelligence, inept planning and a barely operational military logistics system. More than anything, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed the Russian armed forces would be quickly annihilated in any conventional war against the NATO alliance. Only deploying Russia’s strategic nuclear capabilities as a last defensive resort could prevent this, but in light of what we’re witnessing in Ukraine, one has to wonder whether Russia’s strategic nuclear forces have escaped the incompetence and corruption that permeates the rest of its military.


1.“Armored Trains Return to the Russian North Caucasus,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 7(36), February 23, 2010,

2. For the Kozma Minin, see: “Russian Interior Ministry Revives its Armored Train in the North Caucasus,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, May 14, 2013,

3. See “Russia’s Counter-Insurgency Armored Trains Enter the Electronics Age,” AIS Special Report, February 28, 2017,

4. Video of the train’s arrival can be seen at (March 9, 2022).

Russia’s Broken Steamroller: Why the Structure of the Russian Army Prevents Victory in Ukraine

AIS Special Report on Ukraine No. 4

April 7, 2022

Andrew McGregor

Strategic speculation regarding a potential clash of European powers in the early 20th century often cited the likely impact of “the Russian Steamroller,” referring to the massive Imperial Russian army of 1.4 million men and a reserve of over 3 million more. Despite a surprisingly poor performance against Japan in 1904-05, the spectre of millions of armed Russians rolling across Europe in an irresistible wave still figured into the military calculations of other European powers. When a European war did break out in 1914, a smaller German force quickly destroyed the invading Russian masses around the lakes of East Prussia. New armies were raised from the seemingly endless manpower of Russia and some 15 million Russians eventually passed through the army ranks, leaving two million dead on the battlefields of Eastern Europe before Russia made an early exit from the conflict.

Russia’s disastrous role in the Great War contributed to a civil war and an earth-shaking post-war political change that saw Tsars and princes replaced with Bolsheviks and commissars. Though the army of the new Soviet Union remained huge, its equipment was poor and its timid leadership was all that was left after Stalin’s pre-war purge of “anti-revolutionary” elements in the officer corps. This encouraged Germany to tackle the “Steamroller” head-on once again in 1941. Despite its numbers, the almost leaderless Red Army collapsed and the Germans were within sight of Moscow before the army’s headlong retreat could be halted. Germany ultimately lost the war in the East (in large part due to massive Allied aid to Moscow), but not before it succeeded in killing some ten million Soviet soldiers out of the 26 million that served in the wartime Red Army.

Mass Soviet armies threatened Europe throughout the Cold War, but the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the military divided and confused regarding its composition and role. Since the beginning of the Cold War, the military goal of the Soviets and their Russian successors has been to field an army capable of taking on American forces (and their NATO allies) while spending a mere fraction of the US military budget. Needless to say, this is an unrealistic goal and efforts to keep up with American military spending have already broken the Kremlin’s bank once before.

Embarrassing defeats at the hands of Chechen resistance fighters in the 1990s helped bring internal recognition that reforms were badly needed in the Russian army. Poorly trained conscripts performed so ineptly in the Caucasus that frontline officers begged to be spared further reinforcements of draftees.

Russia thus began a gradual transformation to a more professional force with a focus on elite elements rather than the massed armies that had served Russia in the past. However, efforts to build a smaller and more professional military continue to be held back by Russia’s perceived need to field forces large enough to engage with its strategic “peers” in Europe. The financial inability of Russia to fund an army with training, armament and numbers comparable to NATO forces while also maintaining expensive elite forces has led to imbalances in the structure of the Russian Army, imbalances that sabotaged Moscow’s plans for a quick and decisive victory in Ukraine.

Unexpectedly forced into a conventional war unlike the lightning strike by elite troops that Moscow had planned for, Russia’s military seems unable to overcome resistance from a much smaller army, even with the benefit of short supply lines and a huge superiority in arms, armor, aircraft and weapons systems. So what is wrong with the Russian Army?

Not anticipating a campaign of any length, Russia did not field its army in the usual way as brigades, divisions and armies, deploying its forces instead in the battalion tactical groups (BTGs) the army has favored for use in the Donbas region. The BTGs, which focus on mobility backed by artillery, do not carry the same level of battlefield maintenance and repair support services as the larger formations, partly explaining the logistical problems experienced after Russia’s “special military operation” failed to take out the Zelensky government in the first 48 hours (ECFR, March 15, 2022). Roughly 125 BTGs have been deployed in Ukraine.

The new focus on elite troops and the common practice of scripting large-scale military exercises in peacetime have damaged the army’s ability to fight in a conventional manner. Poor land-air coordination of Russian forces prevents effective offensive airstrikes with confusion prevailing over the identification of ground forces as friend or foe. Wretched staff-work and military intelligence efforts bordering on outright incompetence speak to the neglect and lethargy still common to large parts of the Russian military. A basic inability to identify useful military targets may be contributing to the Russian destruction of civilian targets throughout Ukraine.

The Russian army also seems to be unable to use drones to their full advantage in pressing home their attacks. Ukraine’s use of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones has been much more effective in comparison, taking full advantage of the Russian invasion’s reliance on roads and rail to move men and materiel at this time of year.

It is noteworthy that no single general appears to be in command of the campaign, partly due to the Kremlin’s reluctance to elevate operations in Ukraine in the public eye to the status of an “invasion” or “war,” terms that have actually been banned from public discussion of the operation. Confident of a quick victory, Putin may have decided to retain overall command for himself in order to claim credit for a legacy-building contribution to the reconstruction of the Soviet Empire so mourned by the Russian president. Putin has not, however, admitted to any responsibility for a war that has badly damaged Russia’s economy, exposed its military and battered its international reputation.

General Valery Gerasimov (CNBC)

Despite being the author of Russia’s central military doctrine, commander of the Russian Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov briefly went missing from public view after March 11, along with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and intelligence chiefs Igor Kostyukov (GRU) and Alexander Bortnikov (FSB). The FSB, responsible for domestic intelligence, has a clandestine foreign intelligence branch that was responsible for forming partisan groups and encouraging public support for the invasion in Ukraine, failing dismally on both counts. Shoigu and Gerasimov reappeared in a March 26 press conference, but it is unclear whether the two are still actively in command of Russian operations in Ukraine. Putin’s dissatisfaction with the efforts of his military and intelligence leaders became obvious in his March 16 declaration, when he warned the Russian nation will distinguish between true patriots and “scum and traitors” who will be dealt with in a Stalin-style purge.


Conscript losses in the Chechen wars hastened the implementation of proposals to develop a professional corps of volunteer soldiers under three-year, renewable contracts. The kontraktniki, as the contract troops are known, now form two-thirds of Russia’s 600,000-man army and enjoy far better conditions and benefits than conscript troops. Proposals to further expand the contract force continue to founder on the financial difficulty of paying contractors 30 times what a conscript is paid (plus benefits and pensions).

Citizens of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) were first given the opportunity of enlisting in the Russian army in January 2004. According to new rules introduced in 2010 aimed at addressing the unpopularity of military service in Russia, citizens of the CIS were allowed to sign a five-year military service contract, with the possibility of obtaining Russian citizenship after three years. [1] Recruitment began to intensify in the Northern Caucasus and Central Asian states, where military service was still seen as a traditional and honorable occupation offering opportunities of advancement. Enlistment also proved popular with ethnic Ukrainians; a breakdown of ethnic origins in the Russian Federation Army in 2018 revealed over half the officers in the army at that time were ethnic Ukrainians (, February 28, 2022).

Russia often has difficulty convincing contract soldiers to renew their three-year deal in the best of times; convincing kontraktniki whose contracts are expiring to sign up for another hitch during the dirty and demoralizing war in Ukraine may prove a challenge. Little attention has been given to the proper training of non-commissioned officers (NCOs), leaving the lower ranks more dependent on junior officers for initiative and leadership. Russia has, however, revived the controversial post of “political commissar,” albeit in a new form, with lessons in Marxist dialectical materialism replaced by instruction in patriotism and devotion to the state. Besides the new focus on patriotism as a core military value, some effort has been made in recent years to alleviate the notoriously brutal conditions of service in the Russian army, including better pay, pensions and improved living quarters.

Much has been made of the experience Russian forces gained in Syria since 2015, but this experience has been limited to elements of the air force, special forces, intelligence services, military police and select naval ships. Russian infantry of the regular forces have not participated in the ongoing conflict in Syria. Ukrainian troops, on the other hand, have been regularly rotated through frontline positions in the Donbas region since 2014, fighting pro-Russian militias and their Russian advisors. Regular exposure to combat no doubt provided motivation in the Ukrainian ranks to absorb the intensive training provided by elite NATO troops for the past seven years.


The persistence of conscription in Russia when most competing Western nations have moved entirely to professional volunteer forces reflects both an authoritarian fear of a politicized professional military seizing control and an inability to finance a purely professional force.

The deployment of nearly helpless conscripts against highly-skilled and motivated Chechen resistance forces in the 1990s led to a massive distaste for compulsory service in Russian society. As a result, the armed forces found themselves left with only those not clever enough or wealthy enough to avoid the draft, some even resorting to self-mutilation to avoid service. What was left was the slow-witted, the unhealthy and underweight poor, the drug-addled and drink-besotted and the less-than-patriotic graduates of Russia’s prison system. At one point in the 1990s, the Russian conscription class contained far more ex-convicts than recruits with a higher education. It was unsuitable material with which to build a modern army.

For any recruit holding a misguided belief in a military future, there was the dedovshchina, a deeply ingrained system of violent hazing of first-year conscripts by second-year conscripts that led to thousands of unnecessary deaths every year, including those who looked to suicide as a means of escaping the abuse. While a change to only a single year of conscription and other reforms have helped, the reputation established by this iniquitous tradition continues to deter young Russians from military service. Unfortunately, the dedovshchina is now being replaced by ethnic rivalries in the lower ranks, forcing the command to consider creating ethnically-based units to keep rival groups apart, though this is unlikely to proceed due to Moscow’s traditional suspicion of its national minorities. The army of the Russian Federation is far from homogenously Russian and Christian despite its close alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church; it includes Muslim Tatars, ethnic-Koreans, and Muslims from Central Asia and the North Caucasus, among others.

The army recruits through semi-annual drafts, the spring draft coming on April 1 and the fall draft launching on October 1. In recent years, the annual number of recruits has been between 260,000 to 270,000. Very few, if any, children of the Russian elite are ever absorbed into the service through conscription.

Captured Russian Conscripts in Kiev

In 2008, then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov promised to stop sending conscripts to “hot-spots” where combat is ongoing and reduced the conscription period from two years to one. With basic and secondary training taking six to seven months, conscripts are only available for service for a few months before finishing their year-long enlistment.

Due to the difficulty in turning low-quality conscripts into active service troops with the short training period (complicated by conscripts’ focus on their release date rather than developing military skills), draftees are typically unable to operate advanced weapons systems and are instead used in more labor-intensive support roles such as wood-cutting, construction, cooking and transportation. For tasks requiring technological skills, contractors are used exclusively.

A March 7 declaration by Putin that no conscripts were currently deployed in Ukraine was followed a day later by an admission by the Ministry of Defense that conscripts were indeed fighting in Ukraine. In Putin’s mind, his claim may have been technically true – there are numerous reports since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict of Russian conscripts nearing the end of their enlistment being forced, even physically, to sign three-year contracts changing their status from conscript to contract soldier. The change in status, however, is no substitute for the additional training and combat experience real contract troops have received. Ultimately, the addition of poorly trained warm bodies to Russian combat units in the middle of a conflict will do little to enhance their effectiveness, though it may keep these units busy chasing deserters.


Most of Russia’s reserve forces are basically non-functional, with little money available for mobilization, monthly exercises and other training necessary to keep reserve troops in fighting trim. It cannot, therefore, be counted on to replace Russian losses in an extended conflict. Until recently, Russia’s active reserve amounted to only a few thousand soldiers, forcing Moscow to avoid protracted conflicts in which losses could not be easily replaced.

Apparently with an invasion of Ukraine in mind, the Kremlin began to take the problem of the reserves seriously in August 2021. Until that point, reservists were spread out through the country, receiving little or no training. Contact with the armed forces was minimal – reservists were expected to report in themselves in the event of a mobilization and there was no system to keep track of the locations of reservists after they finished their one-year of conscript service. Mobilization of the reserve counted very much on who would feel inclined to show up at the local collection center. By this point, Russia’s armed millions had become little more than a fiction.

To deal with this problem, the Russian command formed the Special Combat Army Reserve (Boevoy Armeyskiy Rezerv Strany – BARS), a kind of reserve form of the kontraktniki, where volunteers with military training could sign three-year contracts, receiving compensation for three-days of training a month. Employers would also be compensated for the loss of labor on service days. The plan was to build a capable reserve of 100,000 troops, likely in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine and possibly other regions on Putin’s “restore the Soviet Union” list.

Vladimir Putin announced on March 8 that Russian reserve troops were not serving in Ukraine, though the announcement came on the heels of Putin’s false assertion that Russian conscripts were not present in Ukraine. Given the intensity of the fighting in Ukraine, it will be impossible to avoid the necessity of temporarily rotating kontraktniki units out of the frontlines; if Russian reserves are not in Ukraine now, they may soon be.


Russia’s experiment in using private military contractors (PMCs) with close ties to private Russian mining firms and investment companies to extend Russian influence abroad has yielded dividends for the Kremlin. At the same time, it allows Moscow to deny culpability for the war crimes and corrupt practices of these formations. From their early use in Syria and Ukraine’s Donbas region, the PMCs (most notable of which is the notorious “Wagner Group”) have now deployed in Sudan, Mali, Mozambique, Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR), offering military services as well as assistance in electoral manipulation, disinformation campaigns, VIP protection and intimidation operations. This new phase of establishing Russian influence abroad marks a drastic deviation from the Soviet era, when the Soviet Union was one of the firmest opponents of “white mercenaries” in Africa, most of whom were staunch anti-communists and hindrances to the spread of Soviet influence.

While the employees of Russia’s PMCs do not fall under official Russian control and are commonly referred to as mercenaries, they are not mercenaries in the true sense in that they are only allowed to operate to the benefit of Russian interests in operations approved by the Kremlin; any attempt to freelance in the traditional way of mercenaries would subject these soldiers to the severe penalties for “mercenarism” included in Russia’s criminal code. The PMCs also quietly receive logistical and transport support from the Russian Defense Ministry, though some Defense Ministry officials may resent the ability of the PMCs and their directors to enrich themselves through access to gas, oil and mineral wealth in the regions where they operate. Putin appears to be following the long-established Soviet practice of encouraging rivalries rather than cooperation amongst national security agencies and their proxies with the intention of preventing any one agency of becoming strong enough to overthrow the regime.

In many cases the PMCs now substitute for the usual work of civilian Russian intelligence agencies overseas, maintaining instead close relations with the GRU, the intelligence agency of Russia’s Ministry of Defense. GRU special forces were instrumental in seizing Crimea in 2014 and have been operating in the Donbas region since then.

The unexpected Russian demand for additional manpower in what was expected to be a brief and decisive operation in Ukraine is now draining personnel from the regions in which the PMCs operate. In some cases, these are not only Russians being pulled to the battlefields of Ukraine, but local fighters who have signed on to the PMCs as mercenaries and interpreters in Africa or Syria.

Elements of the Russian Wagner Group in Libya have been observed leaving for eastern Ukraine, with the remainder of the force locking down at Sirte, or further south at the Brak al-Shati military base and the Tamenhint airbase in Fezzan. Russian regulars are also reported to be leaving Abkhazia and South Ossetia for Ukraine, signs the Russian command is desperate for experienced troops to allow relief for frontline forces.

Syrians are now being recruited for mercenary service in Ukraine. Roughly 300 Syrians are undergoing advanced training in Russia, with the prospect of many more to follow. Most of the Syrian recruits are former members of Syria’s 25th Special Mission Forces Division, specialized in mechanized warfare using Russian equipment and accustomed to working closely with Russian Special Forces units. On March 11, President Putin authorized the recruitment of up to 16,000 volunteers from the Middle East.


Destroyed Russian T-8OU Main Battle Tank

Moscow’s agreement to postpone the invasion of Ukraine until the completion of the Beijing Olympics was a strategic mistake based on Russian assumptions that the war would be over in days. Frozen ground that might have allowed the off-road movement of armor and other military vehicles has now turned into the notorious Rasputitsa that bogged down German invaders 80 years ago. Hundreds of combat vehicles have been lost in the first five weeks of fighting to mud or Ukrainian attacks; according to Ukrainian intelligence, Russian authorities were dismayed to discover that “mothballed” replacements had been stripped of their valuable electronics and optical devices by their corrupt custodians.

Putin is reaching the end of his constitutional mandate as president. Unless he sends out firm signs that he plans on further constitutional manipulation to preserve his rule, failure in Ukraine, either real or perceived, may loosen his grip as new players seek to position themselves in a post-Putin struggle for power.

A Russian occupation of Ukraine seems impossible at the moment. The growing evidence of Russian war crimes in an unprovoked conflict will preclude the legitimacy of any Russian-backed Ukrainian government. Russian excesses could force a strongarm military occupation instead, tying up large numbers of troops with little chance of recruiting local “pro-Moscow” partisans to do the dirty work of occupation outside the Donbas region, at least in the short to medium-term. Concentrating nearly all of its effective troops in Ukraine leaves the rest of Russia’s enormous land-mass nearly defenseless and dependent on Russia’s nuclear option to deter incursions on its borders.

While adding conscripts to the invasion force mix may bring units up to strength, it cannot be reasonably thought that additions of poorly trained conscripts forced into frontline service will contribute in any meaningful way to combat effectiveness, and may even work against it. The use of foreign mercenaries in the “liberation” of Ukraine will only further diminish the Kremlin’s credibility and the legitimacy of its “special military operation.”

Parts of the Russian integrated military doctrine such as information manipulation and cyberstrikes have stuttered when called upon so far, having achieved far greater success in manipulating public opinion inside Russia than in the international arena, where its clumsy claims of “crisis actors” and insistence that Ukrainian troops are committing war crimes against Ukrainian civilians have found little resonance. If the regime in Moscow survives the war, it will be forced to address the structural problems of its military and the contribution these problems have made to the growing debacle in Ukraine. Whether this can be carried out effectively and honestly in a state where even mention of the word “invasion” is an offense is highly questionable.


  1. The largely moribund Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) consists of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan. Georgia withdrew from the CIS due to Russian aggression in 2008; Ukraine withdrew for the same reason in 2018. Turkmenistan participates at a distance as an associate member.

Putin’s New Russian Empire is Suddenly on the Rocks: How the War in Ukraine Threatens Russian Interests in Sudan

AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.3

March 24, 2022

Andrew McGregor

Blue and yellow flags carried by anti-government protesters are a new and unusual sight in the streets of Khartoum. However, these banners are less a show of support for besieged Ukrainians than a rejection of a Sudanese military regime that continues to grow closer to Russia even as President Vladimir Putin’s army carries out widely condemned atrocities and war crimes in a sovereign state. At stake is not only Sudan’s own sovereignty, but the ability of its rulers to offer food security and a path to development.

With the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, Sudan ended over a quarter-century of military-Islamist rule. Though promises were made that a joint civilian-military transitional government would lead to a new era of democratic civilian rule, a military coup in October 2021 ended that experiment and led to the severing of most economic and financial ties to the West, including $US 700 million of American aid.

General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan (Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency)

The junta’s leader, General ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan, is typical of the Islamist military officers who enjoyed great power during al-Bashir’s rule, but his ambitious deputy, Lieutenant-General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” represents a new and growing power in Sudan as commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Created from the remnants of the infamous Janjaweed, the RSF was intended to serve as a paramilitary focused on establishing security in Darfur under the guidance of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS – now rebranded as the General Intelligence Services – GIS) rather than the military. The RSF quickly developed a reputation for atrocities and war crimes in restive Darfur. [1] Since then, it has exploited its independence to grow vastly in strength while establishing its own economic base. Besides serving as revenue-producing rental troops in Libya and Yemen, the RSF now acts as a regime-defending internal security force in most Sudanese cities, including the capital of Khartoum, where the RSF was accused of rapes, murders and massacres after al-Bashir’s overthrow.

With Western nations and international institutions avoiding any interaction with Sudan’s military rulers, Russia has helped provide diplomatic support for the coup leaders at the UN and elsewhere. Russia has also provided direct and indirect support to the Sudanese military and the RSF in return for access to Sudanese resources, especially gold, and an agreement to permit the establishment of a Russian naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Internally, however, Khartoum’s dalliance with Putin’s Russia and the activities of Russian “Wagner Group” mercenaries closely tied to the Kremlin have aggravated opposition to the regime rather than appease it. There have been continuous street protests since the coup, with scores killed by security forces. The participation of Russian mercenaries in repressing popular opposition and manipulating information sources has scandalized many Sudanese. [2]

Rather than back off from an unpopular association with Moscow, Hemetti chose to lead an ill-timed and ill-advised eight-day mission to Moscow only one day before the invasion of Ukraine. Hemetti’s request for supplies of Russian arms and military assistance in exchange for a Red Sea naval base at the same time Russian troops were slaughtering Ukrainian civilians and Sudanese citizens were going hungry was met with disbelief in many quarters.

Sudan, like many other African nations, is a major consumer of Russian and Ukrainian wheat, these sources providing 35% of Sudan’s supply in 2021 (BNNBloomberg, March 15, 2022). Soaring prices for grain are not helped by the retreat of international donors after the military coup, including those agencies that might be the most helpful in securing affordable and reliable supplies. Despite this, Hemetti’s primary focus remained on obtaining weapons rather than provisions.

Sudan abstained on the UN General Assembly motion to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demand Russia’s immediate withdrawal. Despite intense diplomatic pressure from the US and the EU to condemn Russia’s invasion, the military-dominated Sovereign Council that currently governs Sudan would go no further than calling for negotiations and a diplomatic solution.

Sudan’s civilian opposition coalition, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and rejects Russian interference in Sudanese affairs. The National Umma Party (NUP), one of Sudan’s largest, was specific, objecting that Hemetti’s visit to Moscow did not serve Sudanese interests while declaring the invasion was an “unjust war against a free people to force them to give up their sovereignty” (Radio Dabanga, March 1, 2022). Though Russia’s growing presence and influence in Sudan appears to threaten Sudan’s sovereignty as well, events in Ukraine may reverse this trend and even threaten the African nation’s governing structure.

Sudanese Support for Russia – At a Cost

Hemetti and a large Sudanese delegation arrived in Moscow for a week-long visit on February 23, 2022, the day before the attack on Ukraine was launched. It was not Hemetti’s first trip to Moscow; in 2019 he visited on an arms-shopping mission. Since 2017, Sudan has been a leading purchaser of Russian arms, which now represent 50% of Sudanese purchases. [3]

Patrushev and Hemetti, February 25, 2022 (Sudan Tribune)

Notably, the delegation did not include a representative of the Sudanese armed forces. In Sudan, it is Hemetti’s RSF that works closely with Russian mercenaries of the infamous Wagner Group, who have been deployed in support of the military regime. One of Hemetti’s main concerns was reported to involve obtaining Russian weapons for his RSF as well as the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) (Sudan Tribune, February 25, 2022). Among the high-end items sought by Hemetti were S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems and Sukhoi Su-35 jet-fighters at a time when tensions with Ethiopia are high. Other countries, such as Egypt and Indonesia, have recently backed out of deals for the purchase of Su-35s due to their second-rate radar systems and the possibility of US sanctions designed to prevent large weapons purchases from Russia (Forbes, January 11, 2022).

Russian-made Sudanese Sukhoi Su-35 in Sudanese Colors (MilitaryWatchMagazine)

On arrival, Hemetti expressed his support for the independence of the two Russian-engineered republics in the Donbas regions and Russia’s military pressure on Ukraine, declaring: “The whole world must realize that [Russia] has the right to defend its people” (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2022). Hemetti’s remarks seemed to echo Russian assertions that Putin is defending ethnic Russians from genocide at the hands of Ukrainian “Nazis.” Widely condemned almost immediately, Hemetti’s remarks created a diplomatic stir that Sudan’s Foreign Ministry addressed by stating: “We consider that publishing that statement in this manner is a deliberate distortion, taking the speech of the First Deputy out of context, and a cheap attempt to fish in troubled waters” (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2022). Accused of war crimes himself in Darfur, Hemetti is unlikely to have any qualms about establishing closer ties to Putin’s Russia even as it commits war crimes in Ukraine.

An Arabic-language news-site based in London, al-Araby al-Jadid, claimed that al-Burhan told Egyptian authorities he suspected Hemetti and his RSF of planning a coup to replace him with another military figurehead (Sudan Tribune, February 26, 2022). Though al-Burhan is the senior figure in the junta that overthrew President Omar al-Bashir, Hemetti has emerged as the real power, as witnessed by his direct dealings with senior Russian officials such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, head of the Russian Federation Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin.

After Hemetti’s visit to Moscow, al-Burhan made a call to Saudi Arabia to talk to officials there about Red Sea security issues – in other words, a discussion of Hemetti’s views on allowing a Russian Red Sea naval base directly opposite the Saudi cities of Mecca and Jeddah.

Sudanese Gold, Russian Miners

In early March, an executive with a leading Sudanese gold company revealed to the Telegraph that Russia has been smuggling roughly 30 tonnes of gold from Sudan each year to build up its reserves and weaken the effect of sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Working in collusion with Hemetti and his RSF, Russian mining firm M-Invest (closely tied to the “Wagner Group”), through its local subsidiary Meroe Gold, has been smuggling gold in small planes from military airstrips (The Telegraph, March 3, 2022;, November 24, 2017). In response to the allegations, Hemetti said the identity of the end buyers of smuggled Sudanese gold was unimportant; what mattered was who was selling the gold. The RSF chief claimed 40 individuals had already been arrested, but declined to provide any further information (VOA, March 10, 2022). Russian involvement in the Sudanese mining sector began in 2017 with the signing of several agreements between former president Omar al-Bashir and Vladimir Putin.

Sudan’s Minister of Minerals, Muhammad Bashir Abunmo, rejected the claims of Russian smuggling as “baseless accusations” devised to “justify the Western campaign against Russia.” The minister, a member of Minni Minnawi’s faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-MM), insisted that Meroe Gold produces only three tons of gold per year, and that much of that was retained by the Sudanese government (Sudan Tribune, March 12, 2022). The Sudanese acting ambassador to Russia, Onor Ahmad Onor, also rejected the claims: “I have nothing to say other than it is fake news and a story created from the imagination of the Telegraph reporter” (VOA, March 10, 2022). Moscow has also denied the allegations.

On Hemetti’s return, the opposition Forces for Freedom and Change, accused Russia of “stealing resources” and interfering in Sudanese affairs to support its role in “regional and international conflicts” (Middle East Monitor, March 3, 2022). Sudan desperately needs the gold to try to avert an economic collapse brought on by the military coup, so any losses due to smuggling will only contribute to the nation’s financial crisis.

Secret documents obtained by anti-corruption NGO Global Witness in 2020 revealed the complex financial network the RSF has established (including its own bank account in Abu Dhabi), allowing it to independently obtain 1,000 vehicles from Dubai suppliers, most of them Toyota 4x4s that can be converted to lightly armored, machine-gun mounted “technicals” of the type widely used in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Important parts of the network appear to be controlled by Hemetti’s younger brothers, Al-Goni Hamdan Daglo and ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daglo, the deputy head of the RSF. Much of the financing for this network comes from the al-Junaid gold company, which trades in the output of the RSF-controlled gold mines in the Jabal Amr region of Darfur, seized by the RSF in 2017. Al-Junaid is officially owned by ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daglo and his two sons (Global Witness, April 5, 2020).

RSF operations in Yemen provide another revenue stream, courtesy of financing provided by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to Hemetti: “People ask where do we get this money from? We have the salaries of our troops fighting abroad and our gold investments, money from gold and other investments” (Global Witness, December 9, 2019).

A Russian Naval Base on the Red Sea?

After extensive discussions, a 25-year agreement allowing the establishment of a Russian naval base on Sudan’s east coast was signed in 2017 by al-Bashir and Putin, though it was not immediately implemented. [4] The agreement, renewable for further ten-year terms with the consent of both parties, came as al-Bashir complained he needed Russian support to fend off alleged American aggression against Sudan. Under its conditions, Russia will be able to use the base and install 300 Russian personnel to support up to four Russian naval ships (including those powered by nuclear energy) operating in the Red Sea. In return, Sudan would receive Russian arms and other military equipment.

After President Putin authorized his Defense Ministry to establish the Russian base in November 2020, Prime Minister Mikhael Mishustin emphasized that the facility would be “defensive and not aimed against other countries” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 20, 2020). Russia describes the planned base as a “material-technical support facility.”

The agreement was suspended after Sudanese officials had second thoughts about certain clauses in 2021. Many civil and military leaders were less than enthusiastic about the project. Armed Forces chief-of-staff and former Sudanese point-man on the project, General Muhammad ‘Uthman al-Hussein, described the pact as including “clauses that were somewhat harmful to the country,” forcing a general review (AFP, June 2, 2021). Last September, Khartoum was reported to be seeking a modification of the terms surrounding the new Russian base to include not only arms as compensation, but also badly-needed economic assistance. The Sudanese also floated the idea of replacing the 25-year agreement with one covering only five years, with the potential of renewing the agreement up to a 25-year period (The Arab Weekly, September 16, 2021).

The stalled agreement was a focus of Hemetti’s visit to Moscow as the two parties moved towards implementation. On March 3, Hemetti declared: “We have 730 kilometres along the Red Sea. If any country wants to open a base and it is in our interests and doesn’t threaten our national security we have no problem in dealing with anyone, Russian or otherwise” (Reuters, March 3, 2022; AfricaNews, March 2, 2022). Hemetti, however, insisted that the decision was ultimately that of the defense minister, “so it is not my responsibility. But if there is any benefit from the base, in addition to its commitment to community responsibility, for the people of eastern Sudan, we do not object to its establishment” (Sudan Tribune, March 2, 2022).

Hemetti added that he was perplexed by the opposition to a Russian base in Sudan, pointing out that many African countries hosted military bases belonging to foreign powers. Authorities in Cairo were reported to be surprised and angered by Hemetti’s remarks, having no desire to see Russian naval ships patrolling off Egypt’s Red Sea coast near the entrance to the Suez Canal. A demand for clarification was issued almost immediately (Middle East Monitor, March 7, 2022). Egypt abandoned its initial neutral stance on the conflict in Ukraine to vote in favor of the UN General Assembly’s denunciation of the Russian invasion. The change came partly because of diplomatic pressure applied by Ukrainian and American representatives despite demands from the Russian ambassador that Egypt support the invasion.

The location of a Russian Red Sea base remains up in the air, however. Sudan’s Red Sea Coast is little developed, largely due to a lack of suitable ports and an extreme shortage of fresh water that limits population concentrations. Coastal navigation is complicated by numerous shoals, rocky islands and a massive coral reef running parallel to the coast that limits the number of approaches. Russia appears to have been under the impression they could build their naval facilities near Port Sudan, which has rail and road connections to Khartoum, or at the historical port of Suakin, some 50 km south of Port Sudan with access to the same transportation network. Both ports are located near passages through the reef. Suakin was replaced by Port Sudan during the British occupation in 1909 when it proved unable to accommodate seagoing warships and freighters with a deep draft, though modern dredging has helped improve access. The Sudanese coastal navy operates out of Flamingo Bay, just north of the commercial docks in Port Sudan.

Beja Tribesmen Protesting in Port Sudan – The Flag is that of the Beja Congress (al-Arabiya)

Port Sudan is located in Sudan’s unsettled Red Sea Province, where power struggles between the Hadendowa and Bani Amer branches of the Beja people have resulted in blockades of the Khartoum-Port Sudan highway and the closure of port terminals by protesters (Sudan Tribune, February 23, 2022). When Hemetti travelled to Port Sudan after his return from Moscow, he was met by large street protests partly inspired by local fears of a Russian takeover (Al-Jazeera, March 18, 2022).

Arakiyai – Port in the Middle of Nowhere (Map by Abdul-Razak M. Mohamed)

Last year, Sudanese military authorities, eager for Russian arms and training but wary of a permanent Russian military presence in Sudan, instead suggested a Russian base at Arakiyai, a tiny fishing village with no infrastructure well north of Port Sudan and served only by a minor coastal road from the south (Radio Dabanga, December 7, 2021). The village is rarely even marked on maps. Constructing a new and isolated Russian base at Arakiyai from scratch would be far more difficult and expensive than incorporating existing infrastructure at Port Sudan. Ultimately, it would mean a delay of several years before the base could become operational.

The presence of a Russian nuclear-powered fleet in the Red Sea would ultimately be unacceptable to the West, which relies on free access to the Suez Canal at the sea’s northern end for shipments of oil, resources and commercial products bound for Europe and beyond. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, wary of a Russian-Iranian axis in the region, also object to a Russian naval base on the Sudanese coast.


It seems difficult to believe that the Sudanese junta would have mounted their coup without some kind of understanding from Russia that they would step in to replace the economic support Sudan was receiving from the West. Even in better times, however, it was never realistic to expect that Russian investments could make up for the billions of dollars of financial support suspended by the EU, the US and the IMF/World Bank after the military coup. Regardless of the outcome of the Ukraine conflict, Russia’s economy is shattered for years to come and their arms stocks are being drained by the fighting. There will be no largesse, military or financial, from Moscow’s direction for some years to come. Hemetti, with a nation of hungry and impoverished citizens looking for leadership, may discover his Russian gambit to avoid troublesome “Western interference” will be his downfall. Until a democratic civilian government is soon installed in Khartoum, Sudan will be hard pressed to find financial assistance unless it turns to China, another authoritarian state that will seek major concessions in return for economic and military support.

Hemetti, with his third-grade education and no background in economics or international relations, is playing a dangerous game by allying the junta with Russia and committing to the establishment of a Russian naval base in the strategically sensitive Red Sea. Moscow cares nothing for the quality of life in Sudan; the Wagner Group even less. Though Hemetti can count on the support of the paramilitary RSF, he does not necessarily have the backing of the officer corps of the Sudanese army, including the chief of the ruling Sovereign Council, General ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan. Hemetti has essentially usurped the functions of Sudan’s foreign relations ministry, dealing with other nations on his own authority.

After Hemetti’s Moscow call, al-Burhan made a separate visit to his patrons in the United Arab Emirates, perhaps to shore up support in the event of a confrontation with Hemetti, who appears to be edging Sudan’s formal military leadership to the side. Hemetti’s rise and the inclusion of former Darfuri rebels in the Sudanese cabinet are indicators the growing political strength of Darfur’s Arab and indigenous African tribes in what has traditionally been the private reserve of the three great riverain Arab groups who live along the Nile north of Khartoum – the Ja’alin, the Danagla and the Sha’iqiya. Years of tribal manipulation and ruthless repression in Darfur (the source of most of the Sudanese Army’s manpower and most members of the RSF) are now coming back to haunt the riverain tribes who historically regard the peoples of Darfur as unsophisticated, uneducated and undeserving of political power.

The establishment of a naval base in the Red Sea was part of a greater Putin-inspired project to create an overseas presence as part of the foundation of a neo-Soviet Empire. However, Russia’s economic, diplomatic and military setbacks in its still unresolved conflict with Ukraine are almost certain to postpone, if not cancel, Russia’s imperial ambitions. In Sudan, Hemetti has succeeded in creating an independently financed security machine, but for the 44 million Sudanese who do not benefit from being part of the RSF, external relief and assistance is needed now. With almost daily demonstrations against military rule in Sudan, it is unlikely that brute force alone, even if aided by Russian mercenaries, will be enough to secure and sustain the military government.


  1. See: “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014,
  2. The Security Service of Ukraine (Sluzhba bezpeky Ukrayiny – SBU) claimed in 2019 to have copies of the personal documents of 149 Wagner Group mercenaries who travelled to Sudan on Russian Ministry of Defense airliners to suppress pro-democracy protests in 2019 (info,, January 28). See: “Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime,” Eurasian Daily Monitor, February 6, 2019,
  3. See: “Russia’s Arms Sales to Sudan a First Step in Return to Africa: Part One, Eurasian Daily Monitor, February 11, 2009, ; Part Two, Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 12, 2009,
  4. See: “Will Khartoum’s Appeal to Putin for Arms and Protection Bring Russian Naval Bases to the Red Sea?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 6, 2017,