Kiev, Ukraine As Ukraine announces a planned counteroffensive in the spring, the head of the country’s main intelligence agency, Major General Kyrillo Budanov, predicts that the fighting ahead will be “decisive.”
A general who grew up professionally in the ranks of military intelligence is not the first prediction. He is one of the few members of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inner circle who did not believe more than a year ago that Russia was simply “training” troops massing along the Ukrainian border, as Moscow falsely claimed. Budanov was one of the few who warned President Zelensky that Russia was about to invade.
“I relied only on the facts,” he says, speaking from the heavily fortified headquarters he now calls both office and home near the Ukrainian capital. “All the information we had, all the data available, pointed to an intrusion.”
A year after the media speculated about a new Russian offensive that could give President Vladimir Putin a much-needed victory to mark the anniversary of the invasion, Budanov dismissed the idea of a “mythical Russian attack.”
“The so-called Russian offensive is already underway,” he told The Cipher Brief in mid-February, before more recent fighting began. “This is happening now mainly in the territory of Donetsk region, and in principle there is nothing new about it. It will continue as it is now. But this is drastically different from what the media is saying. People are waiting for some mythical date when a thousand tanks will advance, and at 4 o’clock in the morning 400 planes will advance, it will not happen.”
If Budanov seems to see this war through a non-absurd filter, that’s probably because he does. Its headquarters, tucked inside a fortified compound on the island, is surrounded by armed guards, concrete blocks and barbed-wire fences. In the lobby outside his office, armed guards greet visitors who enter the dimly lit reception room with a look of suspicion. This may be due in part to the numerous assassination attempts against him, which the general avoids.
“I’ve been through a fair amount of them,” he says, “so it doesn’t surprise me at all. When people go to work like this, they should realize that this is basically an integral part of their future life.
On the day of The Cipher Brief’s visit, Budanov’s assistant sat behind a large wooden desk near the main office door. Two men in suits and ties looked uncomfortably out of place, shifting their weight from foot to foot, standing almost in shadow. The only light in the room came from the large TV screen playing Shrek with the volume turned down. “Who are the men in suits?” we asked our translator. “They’re probably trying to sell him something here,” he whispered.
Ukraine is certainly in the market for military technology that could push this war to a quicker end, ensuring Russia’s defeat. So far, aid from Western countries has been slower to arrive than what is happening on the battlefield. It’s no secret that President Zelenskiy has used his charisma on the world stage in every forum imaginable to ask for more equipment, including tanks and F-16 fighter jets. Budanov says Kiev also needs artillery systems because there is currently a shortage of artillery barrels. Attack helicopters will also be useful, he tells us.
“Given that we are going to take back the temporarily occupied territories, we need greater offensive capabilities,” he says. “Air defenses allow us to provide cover for such operations.”
Officials in Kiev have also requested Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) that can reach deep into Crimea, where Iranian drones are routinely launched in support of a Russian incursion (drones spotted around the capital overnight. The Cipher Brief- was there).
“When we are going to regain control over temporarily uncontrolled areas, we need everything to carry out an offensive operation,” says Budanov. “We need air defense equipment to cover our troops as they advance and to cover important facilities in all other parts of Ukraine.”
Budanov also says alliances with Western intelligence agencies have proven extremely effective in this war, though he sometimes says his troops need faster access to satellite imagery because of how fast things are moving on the battlefront.
“Cooperation with the military intelligence community and the United States of America is a top priority for us,” he said. “This may come as a bit of a surprise, but we’re not just getting intelligence. They also receive data from us. This is actually a real alliance.”
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Budanov says intelligence sharing and cooperation have only increased since the start of the war, especially in the areas of early warning, offering him and his senior leaders a much more comprehensive picture of what’s happening in the air and space in parts of Ukraine and Russia. : .
“This is very important for us,” he says, “because, let’s say, a little time passes from the moment a missile is prepared and launched until it reaches the target.” Sometimes we see, sometimes not, and our partners help to complete this picture so that we have time to prepare and take the necessary actions.”
Budanov spoke to The Cipher Brief from his office, where the windows were filled with sandbags. They reach high enough to block most of the light, which seems to be a comfortable environment for the general.
As he talked about what his country needed to win this war, two frogs, kept in an aquarium in a dark corner, tried in vain to climb the slippery walls. When the war started, Budanov and his wife decided to move into the compound during the war and brought the frogs with them because, as he explains, he could not leave them.
Another large screen filled with maps and satellite images hangs on the wall in front of his huge desk. And in another corner stands a cage with two chirping birds.
“It’s a living detector of toxins,” he explains. “These birds are very sensitive. If they detect even the smallest concentration of a toxic substance, they will die instantly.”
37-year-old Budanov is one of the country’s youngest and perhaps most electable leaders. He seems to take pride in doing things the old-fashioned way. For example, most of the intelligence that crosses his desk comes on paper.
“We do this to avoid leakage,” he says. “Everything comes only in paper form. Paper reports can only be obtained, say, if you physically receive them, so eavesdropping in this way is almost impossible.”
Some of the intelligence reports the general has focused on over the past year have concerned the makeup of Russia’s fighting forces, with much of the intelligence coming from Russian troops captured on the battlefield. Budanov said the recently captured Russian soldiers came from the Russian Marine Unit 155.th Marine infantry brigade. The brigade has reportedly suffered devastating losses during the latest three-week offensive in Vuhledar, a mining town along the Ukrainian-Russian border that has been devastated by fierce fighting. The media described the Russian unit that went missing there as an “elite brigade,” but Budanov says that doesn’t match his intelligence.
“The vast majority of those captured during those combat operations are only provisionally marines,” he says. “Ninety percent of them are crew members transferred directly from the ships. These are the engineers, mechanics and the crew of ordinary warships. But since the Russian Federation has very significant problems with personnel and training, they simply lack people. So, they were simply transferred to the 155th brigade and told that from this day you are now marines, and the next day, relatively speaking, they went into battle.”
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While Russia is believed to be sending in additional troops to replace those it has lost in places like Vuldehar, Budanov does not believe Moscow has a stockpile of well-trained fighter jets it can use, which leads him to another prediction.
“I am sure that it will be finished in a fairly short time.” He says. “I do not share the opinion that this conflict will last for a simple reason. Russia realizes that it cannot delay for long. With all their actions, they try to show that they are ready for a long-term conflict, but in reality it is the opposite.”
Budanov predicts that in the coming months there will be decisive battles that will significantly affect the end of this war. And his prediction of the end leads right back to Crimea, the territory of Ukraine that was seized by Russian power in 2014 with no real cost imposed by the rest of the world.
“It all started there and it will end there with the return of Crimea,” he tells The Cipher Brief. “Because in any other case, we will only postpone the conflict for the future, and I don’t think anyone will allow that. What forms and methods will we use to achieve this goal? The answer is that any option that allows us to regain control is acceptable to us. It means strength and diplomacy. For me, the war did not start only in Crimea. This is where it all started for our country and the Russian Federation. And here it will end.”
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