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Exclusive: Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Chief Warns of “Real Hell” for Russians

In November last year, Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov sounded the alarm. Vladimir Putin, Budanov told the Military Times, was using the massive Zapad 21 exercises in western Russia and Belarus as a screen for a planned invasion of Ukraine. A day later, Bloomberg reported that US intelligence sources were saying that Russia was preparing for a multipronged push into Ukraine.

At the time, Putin’s spokesperson denounced Budanov’s claims as “hysteria,” and much of the rest of the world was disinclined to believe them—that is, right up until the morning of February 24, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

As the head of the defense intelligence agency of Ukraine—the GUR—Budanov is a member of a new generation of Ukrainian defense officials who model themselves on 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 appointment in 2020 by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was criticized by people who said he was too young—Budanov is 36. Once in office, he went about his work building links with intelligence agencies from the United States to Turkey, and focusing on making Ukraine’s intelligence service less hierarchical and more horizontally integrated. The head of the United States’s National Security Agency recently said that since the beginning of the war intelligence sharing with Ukraine had been “revolutionary.”

Budanov and I spoke the other day over an encrypted line about the war and some of its major themes: He has vowed to stay in Kyiv and carry out his duties. I had been placed in contact with Budanov by a filmmaker who is making a documentary about the war. I later fact-checked the interview with his staff using an official GUR e-mail. Speaking on the record in Ukrainian through a translator with him in Kyiv, Budanov told me that, despite the Ukrainian military’s relative success at holding off the Russians, “the situation is very difficult. We have large Russian forces on our territory, and they have encircled the cities of Ukraine. As for the prospects of peace, despite the negotiations, they still remain vague and unpredictable.”

He was disinclined to trust the Russians—“the Russian side has never been predictable in a case of negotiations”—and struck a defiant note: “Our country understands with whom we are dealing, and we don’t expect any miracle here. We are dealing with an army of criminals, of looters, of mercenaries, and we are ready to fight and win.”

“Russian command has made miscalculations many times, and we use these miscalculations,” Budanov said. “The Ukrainian army has shown that the Russian army as the second army in the world is a big myth, and it’s just a medieval concentration of manpower, old methods of warfare.” At the end of the war, he hopes Ukraine will finally be able to deploy a fully functional air defense system, and seek international guarantees that will assure its peace.

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