Russia's pulling combat forces from another continent to fuel its latest offensive push in Ukraine, Western intel says

  • Russia has pulled combat forces from Africa to support its new offensive in the Kharkiv region.

  • Africa Corps units recently deployed to fight with other Russian forces, Western intelligence said.

  • The Russian Africa Corps was created last year and consists of former Wagner Group mercenaries.

Russia has moved some combat forces from Africa to help support its latest offensive efforts in northeastern Ukraine, according to a new Western intelligence assessment.

Over the past week, Moscow has deployed units from its Africa Corps to fight around Vovchansk, a small city in Ukraine's Kharkiv region that has been at the center of intense fighting in recent days, the UK defense ministry wrote in a Friday intelligence update.

The Russian defense ministry created the Africa Corps last year as a way to expand its footprint on the continent and also in the Middle East. The military formation, which has the same name as a World War II Nazi unit, consists of more than 2,000 regular soldiers, officers, and mercenaries — including many who once served in the notorious Wagner Group.

In Ukraine, Africa Corps units have been deployed alongside regular Russian military forces and Storm-Z penal units made up of convicts and troops with disciplinary charges to support the ongoing Kharkiv offensive, Britain's defense ministry noted.

Ukrainian soldiers defending the front line in Vovchansk on May 20.
Ukrainian soldiers defending the front line in Vovchansk on May 20.Photo by Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images

Russia's defense ministry "almost certainly redeployed detachments from the Africa Corps to the Ukrainian border during April 2024 in preparation for this offensive," the defense ministry said. "It is highly likely that Russia is reinforcing its war on Ukraine with resources previously assigned to Africa."

Other Africa Corps detachments are believed to have deployed to Syria, Libya, Burkina Faso, and Niger, the UK said.

The Wagner Group — which long operated as a shadowy extension of Russia's foreign policy apparatus until their involvement in the Ukraine war thrust the mercenaries into the limelight — has a history of activity in those countries. The organization has also been accused of committing various atrocities and human rights violations across Africa.

Russia has moved to assume more control over Wagner in the year since the mercenaries staged a failed mutiny last June, sparked by grievances over the Ukraine war. Moscow's grip on the ruthless organization only tightened after its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died in a still-mysterious plane crash just two months later.

This undated photograph handed out by the French military shows Russian mercenaries boarding a helicopter in northern Mali.
This undated photograph handed out by the French military shows Russian mercenaries boarding a helicopter in northern Mali.French Army via AP

The recent deployment of certain Africa Corps units to the Kharkiv region appears to underscore Russia's commitment to its new offensive.

Earlier this month, after gathering tens of thousands of troops near the border, Russia launched an assault into the region in an attempt to carve out a buffer zone near its territory.

The limited incursion is also designed to stretch thin Ukrainian forces across the sprawling front line and pin down Kyiv's defensive efforts around Kharkiv, possibly signaling the start of what could be a multi-pronged summer offensive.

Nearly two weeks into the offensive, Russia has captured a small amount of territory along the border and is closing in on Vovchansk, which had a pre-war population of more than 17,000 people.

The city has been at the heart of brutal fighting and has fallen victim to Moscow's devastating glide-bomb strikes. Imagery shared to social media shows widespread destruction.

Smoke rises from the city of Vovchansk on May 17.
Smoke rises from the city of Vovchansk on May 17.Photo by Libkos/Getty Images

Ukraine's General Staff of the Armed Forces said in a Friday update shared to Facebook that Russia had conducted multiple assaults in the Kharkiv direction, but Kyiv's troops were fighting back and able to repel the attacks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to Kharkiv city on Friday, where he held meetings on the battlefield situation and received updates on defensive operations around Vovchansk.

He wrote in a post on X that "we paid special attention to the housing needs of our people who had been displaced from Kharkiv region territories targeted by enemy shelling."

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