Exclusive: Ukrainian defense intelligence chief warns of ‘real hell’ for Russians
In November last year, Brig. General Kyrylo Budanov sounded the alarm. Vladimir Poutine, Budanov told the military times, used the massive Zapad 21 exercises in western Russia and Belarus as a screen for a planned invasion of Ukraine. One day later, Bloomberg reported that US intelligence sources were saying that Russia was preparing for a multi-pronged push into Ukraine.
At the time, Putin’s spokesman called Budanov’s claims “hysteria”, and much of the rest of the world was not inclined to believe them, that is, until morning of February 24, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.
As head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency – the GUR – Budanov is part of a new generation of Ukrainian defense officials who are inspired by NATO officers rather than their Soviet predecessors . He came of age after the fall of the USSR, working with Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency on operations in Russian-occupied Crimea in the middle of the last decade. In 2019, he was targeted by an assassin who tried to bomb his car. Budanov’s 2020 appointment by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was critical by people who said he was too young – Budanov is 36 years old. Once in power, he continued his work establishing links with intelligence agencies from the United States to Turkey, and working to make Ukraine’s intelligence service less hierarchical and more horizontally integrated. The head of the US National Security Agency recently said that since the start of the war, intelligence sharing with Ukraine was “revolutionary”.
Budanov and I spoke the other day on a cryptic line about the war and some of its main themes: He swore to stay in kyiv and perform his duties. I had been put in contact with Budanov by a filmmaker who is making a documentary on the war. Later, I verified the interview with his staff using an official GUR email. Speaking publicly in Ukrainian through an interpreter with him in Kyiv, Budanov told me that, despite the Ukrainian military’s relative success in holding back the Russians, “the situation is very difficult. We have large Russian forces on our territory and they have surrounded the cities of Ukraine. As for the prospects for peace, despite the negotiations, they still remain vague and unpredictable.
He was reluctant to trust the Russians – “the Russian side has never been predictable in the event of negotiations” – and issued a note of defiance: “Our country understands who we are dealing with and we are not expecting any miracles here. We are dealing with an army of criminals, looters, mercenaries, and we are ready to fight and win.
“The Russian command made many miscalculations, and we use those miscalculations,” Budanov said. “The Ukrainian army has shown that the Russian army, as the second army in the world, is a great myth, and it is only a medieval concentration of manpower, ancient methods of warfare. ” At the end of the war, he hopes that Ukraine will finally be able to deploy a fully functional air defense system and seek international guarantees that will secure its peace.
One of the keys to the effectiveness of Ukrainian forces in the current conflict, Budanov said, has been intelligence gathering. He claimed that from the start the Ukrainians were prepared. “We have a lot of informants within the Russian military, not only in the Russian military, but also in their political circles and their leaders,” Budanov told me. “In November, we already knew the intentions of the Russians, and you can see that everything happened. As for the date, it has changed several times. Budanov said this intelligence meant the Ukrainians were ready for an invasion.
Budanov also told me that Ukrainians were tracking Chechen forces fighting for Russia on Ukrainian territory using their cell phones and human intelligence sources. (The Chechens appear to have operational security issues – the BBC private messages acquired that Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader who is a close ally of Putin, had done before the invasion by bragging to an associate about the coming war.)
In the Russian world, the Chechens have the reputation of being particularly efficient soldiers. Throughout the invasion, Kadyrov has posted videos on his Telegram channel of bearded Chechen soldiers in Ukraine engaging in brutal firefights and carrying out activities on Ukrainian soil. Some Ukrainians have drawn places in these photos of Kadyrovtsias Kadyrov’s men are called, and pointed out that they are actually in Belarus, far from the front.
Budanov said his department had tracked a contingent of around 25,000 Chechens since the start of the war. “We have many informants in the Chechen ranks. As soon as they start planning an operation, we know about it from our informants,” he said. “When the war started, Russia suffered many losses, and most of these people did not even manage to approach kyiv.” He pointed out that Ukrainian special forces had engaged with a group of Chechen looters near kyiv the day before our conversation which was only two men. “We never saw more than 20 or 30 Chechens in one place. The concentration is very low.
The war entered a new phase, Budanov said, a phase in which the Russians began bombing Ukrainian cities and avoiding ground clashes (“The Russians are cowards because they bombed and bombed our people peace, our hospitals, our drama theatres, our maternities”). He compared the Ukrainians to the Spartans who at Thermopylae stood and fought without bows and arrows, although he was confident that the Ukrainians would not share the Spartans’ fate of annihilation by an overwhelmingly powerful army.
Budanov and I also talked about the invisible war that is taking place on computer networks and how hackers are now vigorously involved on both sides. This phase of the war began nine days before the invasion, on February 15, when Russian hackers launched an attack on Ukrainian government agencies and banks (“The key problem for the Russians was work disruption and spread of panic”). Recently, he said, Ukrainian intelligence services have monitored phishing attacks against his government officials by Belarusian hacking group Ghostwriters and Russia-affiliated Fancy Bear, which was also accused of orchestrating the hacking of Democratic Party emails during the 2016 election. Ukraine, he said , has mobilized a large force of volunteer hackers who are targeting their own attacks on Russia’s digital infrastructure.
A key part of Budanov’s work was to organize a guerrilla force that would stay behind Russian lines. He wouldn’t say much about the force except that it’s “a very large number of people”, raising the prospect of a protracted insurgency like the one in Afghanistan or Vietnam. He mentioned that hunters had been drafted into the group, and I thought of the Ukrainian lumberjack who blew himself up near Chernihiv with a grenade rather than handing over a list of local hunters to Russian troops. “Our warriors, our military, even our hunters will start hunting the aggressor, the Russian forces, with their guns in the forests,” he said. “I must say that soon spring will come, our forests will turn green, and a real hell will open up for the aggressor.”