Europe | Pencil lines

An interview with the head of Ukraine’s defence intelligence

“Warehouses in the West are not completely empty. No matter what anyone says,” says Kyrylo Budanov

Lieutenant General?Kyrylo Budanov
image: Alamy

THE HEAD of Ukraine’s defence intelligence agency, the HUR, is in no mood to debate his country’s ongoing counter-offensive. “Facts, not discussion” are what motivates Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov. The slow pace of advance against a dug-in and well-prepared enemy is simply a reflection of reality. He does not understand those who predicted a quick collapse of the Russian lines. “Is a pencil strong or weak? It depends how you look at it.” The counter-offensive is ongoing. Ukraine still has time. There is more than a month before the muddy season sets in. “And that’s a fact.”

The 37-year-old spy chief, freshly promoted by President Volodymyr Zelensky to three-star rank, is looking calm and rested. He says it is Russia, not Ukraine, that has reason to fret. Its first defensive line in the all-important southern axis in Zaporizhia has already been pierced in places, meaning that the operation to sever the land connections between Russia and Crimea may yet be achieved before winter sets in. Ukraine may already have drawn on limited numbers of its reserve troops, but Russia is now, in seeming desperation, known to be committing under-strength reserves that it had not planned to deploy until late October. “Contrary to what the Russian Federation declares, it has absolutely no strategic reserve,” the general says. Russia’s 25th Combined Arms Army, now being prematurely deployed in the eastern front around Lyman and Kupyansk, has only 80% of the manpower and 55% of the equipment it was supposed to have, he says.

Amid reports that Russia is poised to step up its ongoing mobilisation drive, General Budanov says that headcount is the only obvious advantage that Russia still retains over Ukraine. “Human resources in Russia are, relatively speaking, unlimited. The quality is low, but the quantity is sufficient.” As far as other components of the war effort are concerned, Russian resources are being exhausted, and a reckoning is coming. Russia’s economy will hold out only until 2025, he says. The flow of weapons will dry up in 2026, “perhaps earlier”, he asserts—though the evidence to support his claims is patchy. Vladimir Putin’s talks with North Korea are an obvious indication of his problems. “If everything is fine and Russia has enough resources, why are they looking for them all over the world? The answer is obvious. There is nothing to extract any more.”

The spy chief concedes that Ukraine risks running down its own resources too. “We are dependent on external players. Russia is mostly dependent on itself.” A long war is therefore dangerous for Ukraine because it exhausts not only its domestic resources, but also those of Western backers. Some Ukrainian officials are beginning to detect a shift in the readiness of partners to continue support at the same level. Others say ammunition deliveries could soon dry up, forcing an end to offensive operations. But General Budanov rejects both conclusions. He says he has “good intelligence” about political realities in the West. “It is still absolutely undecided how long the West will be able to maintain a sufficient supply of resources to us,” he says. “Warehouses in Western countries are not completely empty. No matter what anyone says. We can see this very clearly as an intelligence agency.”

Following decades of underinvestment, corruption and sabotage, Ukraine is slowly ramping up its own domestic arms production. One focus is drones and long-range missiles, weapons that can strike deep behind front lines. The world was last week given a glimpse of Ukraine’s new capabilities with a series of strikes by missiles and drones on ships, a submarine, dry docks and air defences in Crimea. General Budanov’s HUR is playing a leading role in such attacks. “Drones will definitely make the operations to liberate our territories easier. Drones have no fear. You don’t feel sorry for them.”

There are three main objectives for Ukraine’s new drone campaign against Russia: to exhaust Russia’s air-defence systems; to disable military transport and bombers; and to damage military production facilities, such as its recent operation that hit a factory producing rocket fuel in Tver region, just north of Moscow. “We want to get them out of their comfort zone.” A secondary aim is psychological, seeding disquiet among the population and disrupting normal economic processes inside Russia. The closure of big airports in St Petersburg and Moscow has, for example, become an almost daily occurrence.

General Budanov rejects suggestions that the new strike capacity risks escalation, or casts Ukraine as an aggressor. His forces do not violate the rules of war, he says. There have been “zero” civilian casualties in Russia, he says. That reflects a deliberate decision by Ukraine; it is not a matter of ability. “No one believes the UK or United States were the aggressors in the second world war, although they also bombed the territory of Germany.” As far as nuclear threats are concerned, these are arguments put forward by those sympathetic to the Russia lobby. The war has been an “absolutely conventional war...from the use of submarines to the use of strategic aviation.”

The spy chief says he is working on a limited deterrence and retaliation pose to counter Russia’s expected winter campaign of missile and drone strikes on infrastructure. “Let them start. They will also receive an answer.” But he does not expect his enemy ever to give up out of choice. War has been a constant for Russia throughout its history, he says. There can be no discussion of a ceasefire or a peace without Ukraine’s military establishing its own facts on the ground. “We understand we will not end the war with a victory parade in Moscow. But neither should Moscow ever hope to hold one in Kyiv.”

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