Kyiv, Ukraine – As Ukraine announces a planned counteroffensive in the Spring, the head of the country’s Main Intelligence Directorate, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, is predicting that the coming battles will be ‘decisive’.
It’s not the first prediction that the general, who has grown up professionally in the ranks of military intelligence, has made. He is one of the few members of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inner circle who – just over a year ago – didn’t believe that Russia was simply ‘training’ the troops that were assembling along Ukraine’s border, as Moscow falsely claimed. Budanov was one of the few who warned President Zelensky that Russia was preparing to launch an invasion.
“I was relying only on facts,” he says, speaking from the heavily fortified headquarters he now calls both office and home, near Ukraine’s capital. “All the information that we had, all the available data, was pointing to an invasion.”
A year later, as the media speculated about a new Russian offensive that could give President Vladimir Putin a much-needed win to mark the anniversary of the invasion, Budanov dismissed the notion of a ‘mythical Russian offensive’.
“The so-called Russian offensive is already underway,” he told The Cipher Brief in mid-February, before some of the heavier recent fighting began. “It is taking place on the territory, mostly now, of Donetsk Oblast, and in principle, there is nothing new in it. It will go on as it is going on now. But this dramatically differs from what the media is saying. People are waiting for some mythical date when a thousand tanks will move forward, and 400 planes will advance at 4 a.m. It won’t happen that way.”
If it seems like Budanov sees this war through a no-nonsense filter, it’s probably because he does. His headquarters, tucked deep inside a fortified island compound, is encircled by armed guards, concrete blocks and barbed wire fencing. In the lobby outside his office, armed guards greet visitors entering the dimly-lit reception room with an eye of suspicion. That could be in part, because of the many reported assassination attempts made against him, something the general brushes off.
“I’ve been through a certain number 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 inherent part of their future life.”
On the day The Cipher Brief visited, Budanov’s assistant sat behind a large wooden desk near the door to the main office. Two men, dressed in suits and ties, looked uncomfortably out of place, shifting their weight from one foot to another, standing almost in the shadows. The only light in the room emanated from a large TV screen that was playing a Shrek movie with the volume turned down. “Who are the men in suits,” we asked our interpreter. “Probably here trying to sell him something,” he whispered back.
Ukraine is certainly in the market for military technology that can push this war toward a faster end by ensuring a Russian defeat. So far, aid from western countries has come at a slower pace than what is transpiring on the battlefield. It’s no secret that President Zelensky 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 Kyiv also needs artillery systems because at the moment, there is a lack of artillery barrels. Attack helicopters would also be helpful, he tells us.
“Taking into account that we are preparing to take back territories that are being temporarily occupied, we need more capabilities for offensive actions,” he says. “Air defense allows us to provide cover for operations like this.”
Officials in Kyiv have also been asking for Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) that are capable of reaching deep into Crimea, where Iranian drones are routinely launched in support of the Russian invasion (drones that were detected circling the capital city on one of the nights The Cipher Brief was there).
“As we prepare to regain control of the temporarily uncontrolled territories, we need everything possible to conduct an offensive operation,” Budanov says. “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 that alliances with western intelligence agencies have proven extremely effective in this war, though he says sometimes, his troops need faster access to satellite imagery because of how quickly things are moving on the battlefront.
“Cooperation with the military intelligence community and with the United States of America, is of the highest priority for us,” he says. “This may come as a bit of a surprise, but we don’t just receive intelligence. They also receive data from us. This is actually a real alliance.”
It’s not just for the President anymore. Are you getting your daily national security briefing? Subscriber+Members have exclusive access to the Open Source Collection Daily Brief that keeps you up to date on global events impacting national security. It pays to be a Subscriber+Member.
Budanov says that intelligence sharing and cooperation has only increased since the start of the war, particularly 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 above Ukraine and parts of Russia.
“This is very important for us,” he says, “because let’s just say, from the moment the missile is prepared and launched, to its actual arrival at the target, a little time passes. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don’t, and our partners help to complete this picture so that we have time to prepare and take necessary actions.”
Budanov spoke with The Cipher Brief from his office, where the windows were piled high with sandbags. They reach high enough to keep out 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 a dark corner aquarium tried in vain to climb the slippery walls. When the war started, Budanov and his wife made the decision to move to the compound for the duration of the war and they brought the frogs with them because, as he explains, he couldn’t leave them behind.
Across from his massive desk, another large screen hangs on the wall – this one filled with maps and what appear to be satellite images. And in another corner, stands a cage with two chirping birds.
“It’s a live detector of poisonous substances,” he explains. “These birds are very susceptible. If they detect the slightest concentration of a poisonous substance, they will die immediately.”
At 37-years-old, Budanov is one of the country’s youngest and perhaps most eclectic, 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 a piece of paper.
“We do this to avoid leaks,” he says. “Everything comes only in paper form. Paper reports can only be obtained, shall we say, if you physically get them, so this way, interception is nearly impossible.”
Some of the intelligence reports that the general has been focused on over the past year, have been about the make-up of Russia’s fighting force, with much of the intelligence coming from Russians troops captured on the battlefield. Budanov said recently captured Russian soldiers hailed from a Russian Marine Unit, the 155th Naval Infantry Brigade. The brigade reportedly suffered devastating losses over the course of a recent three-week offensive in Vuhledar, a mining town along the Ukrainian-Russian border that has been demolished by fierce fighting. Media reports described the Russian unit that was lost there as an ‘elite brigade,’ but Budanov says that’s not consistent with his intelligence.
“The vast majority of people who were taken prisoner during these hostilities are only conditionally, marines,” he says. “Ninety percent of them are crew members who were taken directly from the ships. These are engineers, mechanics, and the crew of conventional warships. But since the Russian Federation has very significant problems with manning and training, they lack, quite simply, people. So, they were simply transferred to the 155th brigade and were told that from this day on, you are now marines, and the next day, relatively speaking, they went into battle.”
Subscriber+Members Can Access The Wagner Group’s Route to Infamy exclusively in The Cipher Brief
While Russia is believed to be sending additional troops to replace those it lost in places like Vuldehar, Budanov doesn’t believe Moscow has reserves of well-trained fighters to draw on, leading him to another prediction.
“I am sure it will be over in a fairly short time.” he says. “I don’t share the opinion that this conflict will last long for one simple reason, Russia realizes that it cannot drag it out for long. With all their actions, they are trying to show that they are ready for a long-term conflict, but in reality, it’s the exact opposite.”
Budanov predicts that the coming months will see decisive battles that will significantly impact how this war ends. And his prediction about the end leads right back to Crimea, the area of Ukraine that was taken by Russian force 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 be postponing the conflict for the future and I don’t think anyone will allow this. What forms and methods will we use to achieve this goal? The answer is any option that allows us to regain control is acceptable to us. That means force and diplomacy. The war did not only begin in Crimea for me. This is where it started for our whole country and the Russian Federation, too. And this is where it will end.”
Follow Cipher Brief CEO & Publisher Suzanne Kelly on LinkedIn and Twitter for 30 images in 30 days: behind-the-scenes pictures from The Cipher Brief’s reporting in Ukraine
Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief