Ukraine’s head of military intelligence is behind Kyiv’s biggest victories this year. He sees no point in peace talks

Ukraine’s head of military intelligence, Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, prefers to operate in the shadows — in military operations as well as at his desk.
Serhiy Morgunov / The Washington Post

KYIV, Ukraine — There have been at least 10 Kremlin attempts to kill one of Ukraine’s most admired heroes, the legendary head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov.

Russian agents have blown up his car. They even poisoned his wife.

She survived. He pledged revenge.

When I met the spy chief in his darkened office recently, during a rare interview with a foreign journalist, I asked whether the Russians are still trying to kill him. The poker-faced Budanov shrugged. “It’s normal,” he said.

Then, allowing himself a half-smile, the lieutenant general added: “Let’s put it this way: Since we are talking with you now, it means they are not succeeding.”

There are good reasons why the Kremlin will continue to try.

Budanov’s spy agency, known as HUR, has carried out some of Ukraine’s most stunning military successes, including long-range drone strikes inside Russian territory. Meanwhile, the agency’s Magura sea drones — a game-changing Ukrainian invention — have helped push most of the Russian fleet out of its main Black Sea harbor in occupied Crimea and back to ports on the Russian mainland.

These gains are probably Ukraine’s most important victories in the last year — and could lead to more surprising maritime successes to offset the stalemate on land.

HUR headquarters is located on an isolated peninsula that juts into the Dnieper River. Inside a grim, gray, low-rise block, Budanov’s office is barely lit. He prefers to operate in the shadows — in military operations as well as at his desk.

Behind that book- and paper-laden desk hangs a large painting of an owl sinking its claws into a bat. The HUR adopted the owl as its symbol in 2016, two years after Moscow invaded Crimea, to troll the Russians. The bat is the symbol of the special operations unit of Russia’s military intelligence agency.

On a nearby table, a set of polished metal chess pieces shines through the gloom, as if to warn that Budanov is poised to out-strategize Moscow.

Appointed to his post four years ago, the 38-year-old spymaster has been known to lead his men on daring raids into enemy territory. “He is a pirate who loves operations,” an admirer told me. He is also famous for his tight lips.

But in our interview, Budanov spoke openly about the need to expand drone attacks inside Russia and to make it impossible for Moscow to hold on to Crimea. And he was frank about the challenges Ukraine faces — including the continued need for U.S. weapons and the possibility of an election victory by Donald Trump.

Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine's 38-year-old spymaster, at his desk

Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s 38-year-old spymaster, at his desk. Behind him is a large painting of an owl sinking its claws into a bat. The military intelligence agency adopted the owl as its symbol in 2016, two years after Moscow invaded Crimea, to troll the Russians. The bat is the symbol of Russia’s premier special operations unit, the Spetsnaz.
Serhiy Morgunov/For the Washington Post

Striking back

Asked whether Ukrainian troops could stop the current Russian offensive in the east, where Moscow has been making small but steady territorial gains, Budanov spoke plainly.

“The good news is that no Armageddon will emerge,” he told me. “The bad news is that the situation is quite difficult. It will remain like this for at least one month, and will not become easier.”

Moscow is expected to pound Ukraine as hard as it can in the lead-up to the 75th anniversary NATO summit in mid-July in Washington, and before the U.S. delivers more of the artillery shells and other critical supplies that were held up by Congress.

The Kremlin has been trying since the war began to take control of the entire eastern Donbas region. “We will do everything possible to prevent them, and to minimize the Russian successes,” Budanov said.

However, when I inquired whether Ukraine could hold one of the most hotly contested eastern towns, Chasiv Yar, which sits on high ground that bars a Russian advance across flatter steppes and toward large industrial cities, his reply was cryptic: “I will refrain from response.”

When I subsequently traveled to the Chasiv Yar area, the situation did not look good, and there was great bitterness among the troops over the many lives lost because Ukraine ran out of artillery shells and other vital supplies while Congress dawdled over whether to provide additional military aid.

Now, more artillery shells are arriving slowly, from the U.S. and Europe. “For sure, weapons delivery is faster than it was several months ago,” Budanov allowed, “but Ukraine’s needs are very high, which is why it has been strategically important for us to have the deliveries renewed. Still, there is a question of volume.”

A Ukrainian soldier passes by a damaged apartment building in Chasiv Yar

A Ukrainian soldier passes by a damaged apartment building in Chasiv Yar, the site of heavy battles with the Russian forces in the Donetsk region, Ukraine.
Iryna Rybakova / AP

Manpower is also a critical problem for Ukraine, with Moscow prepared to grind its troops up like meat while much smaller Ukraine is anxious to preserve its soldiers.

Budanov believes the answer to Russia’s superiority in manpower is battlefield technology, in which Ukraine has become a global leader, replacing humans on the battlefield whenever possible with new variants of drones and electronic warfare. “Technologies will have quite a significant meaning in this war,” he predicted, “so that we don’t fight the war until the last citizen’s left.”

Technology is key to one of Budanov’s most intensive projects: taking the war to Russia with long-range drones.

“I am a fan of this,” the intelligence chief said with an intensity that broke through his laconic style. “I have been advocating this since the very first days of the war, saying openly that so long as the war is contained on our territory, it will not affect Russia.

“That is why since spring 2022, we have started to conduct significant operations on Russian territory, and we will go further the more resources we have for this. And Russia has started to feel it.”

In other words, Vladimir Putin can no longer pretend to his people that this war doesn’t affect them.

“It is still not critical for Russia at this stage, but it has led to the situation when the average citizen in the European part of the Russian Federation for sure knows and feels that the war is ongoing and has experienced some of the explosions himself. It influences, even on a small scale now, their morale.”

Budanov later publicly confirmed that the night after my interview last week, Kyiv launched a swarm of at least 70 drones on Russia’s Morozovsk airfield, located about 150 miles from the front lines and home to dozens of Moscow’s vaunted Sukhoi Su-34 fighter bombers. HUR has also been involved in attacks by long-range Ukrainian Liutyi airplane drones that have destroyed dozens of Russian oil refineries.

A White House warning to Kyiv not to hit refineries makes no sense since they are a legitimate war target. These attacks may not turn the war around, the intel chief admitted, but he believes they can affect Russia’s economy “and psychological state,” which in turn “affects the military component.” HUR has announced that it considers any Russian military target within a 500-mile range fair game.

Ukrainian serviceman Andrii (left), of the Air Assault Forces 148th separate artillery brigade

Ukrainian serviceman Andrii (left), of the Air Assault Forces 148th separate artillery brigade, sends receiving coordinates for a Furia drone at the front line in Donetsk region, Ukraine, in May.
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP

Shifting policy

I asked about the usefulness of President Joe Biden’s shift in policy to allow U.S. weapons to be used to hit sources of Russian fire just across the border from the major city of Kharkiv.

“It will ease our lives,” said Budanov, but he added that if Kyiv were permitted to use U.S. weaponry “to the whole so-called operational depth in Russia that we can reach, of course, it will be easier for us.”

Budanov believes that the Crimean Peninsula — captured by Moscow in 2014 and turned into a huge military base that controls most of Ukraine’s southern coast — can be cut off from resupply and forced into submission.

Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, has long argued that this would be the key to putting Putin on the defensive. “I share the opinion of Gen. Hodges, absolutely,” said the Ukrainian spy chief. “So we need to do everything to implement it.”

HUR’s Ukrainian-made Magura drones have already been used to destroy several Russian ships and force them to relocate from Crimea. “They are already trapped near Novorossiysk port,” Budanov said. “We just need to make sure that all the remains of the fleet are pushed back to the territory of the Russian Federation. There have been no combat ships left in the Black Sea for a long time.”

Next step is to cut all resupply for Russian forces in Crimea, including Putin’s pet project, the Kerch Bridge.

Budanov has already been “arrested in absentia” by Moscow for his agency’s role in seriously damaging the bridge in 2022, apparently with a truck bomb. He considers that an honor.

He believes that long-range ATACMS missiles, which Biden finally delivered to Ukraine in recent months, could ultimately take out the bridge. Those who claim ATACMS aren’t powerful enough to do the job are mistaken, he said. “They should read the technical manuals. The only question is their quantities, but principally speaking, these missiles will allow us to fulfill such a mission.”

In this undated photo provided by Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine a Magura V5

In this undated photo provided by Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine a Magura V5 (maritime autonomous guard unmanned robotic apparatus V-type), Ukrainian multi-purpose unmanned surface boat capable of performing various tasks, is seen in Ukraine.Read more
Daniyar Sarsenov / AP

Budanov scoffs at the idea that Moscow would use tactical nuclear weapons if control of Crimea were threatened, a fear Putin constantly fans. The Ukrainian believes he understands Putin’s mindset and limitations.

“First of all, I know what is really happening out there. Secondly, I know the real characteristics of Russian nuclear weapons. What use would it have? We don’t have big concentrations of troops for which such nuclear weapons would be appropriate.

“And to break holes in our defense lines is possible with conventional means of warfare. Besides, using nuclear weapons would lead to big political risks for Putin.”

I would add that Putin’s redlines on Crimea have been crossed many times when Ukraine fired British missiles at bases there, and nothing has happened. If there is any chance to convince Putin he can’t win, it may lie with making Moscow’s hold on Crimea untenable.

As for Budanov, he sees no point in peace talks, because “we have no option but to get back what was occupied. Otherwise, the state of war will go on forever.”

A bigger problem may be Trump, who keeps repeating he would cut off military aid to Ukraine if reelected. Budanov remains sanguine at the prospect of a Trump win in November.

“I have a calm attitude to the possibility of Trump coming to power,” he said. “Your elections are very unpredictable. If you analyze his public speeches, he has changed his position several times. And the power of your system is that it doesn’t allow one individual to make decisions unilaterally.

“In the end, I believe in the USA and that we will reach victory together. And here I am stressing, together! This is what I would like to finish with.”

Indeed, as Ukrainian officials are starting to hedge their bets about a Trump win, I can’t help thinking that Budanov might be one Ukrainian who could appeal to Trump as a derring-do military figure who “wins” and can show exciting video of the new style of drone warfare.

Before I left, I asked Budanov: If I come back in a year, will things be better?

“I will refrain from replying,” he said. “This is a very philosophical question.”

His reply reminded me of the famous social media video in which he stares at the camera in silence for 32 seconds. Then, three words flash on the screen in Ukrainian: To be continued.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer