With Russia’s war in Ukraine now in its second year, there is renewed attention on the eastern salt-mining city of Bakhmut, the focus of a sustained Russian offensive in recent months. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the situation in Bakhmut is becoming more and more “complicated.” Bakhmut is just one of many areas in Russia’s sights as the war continues.
Along with the billions of dollars in military assistance that Western nations have given, Ukraine seeks fighter jets, but so far, the West has refused that request. The NATO military alliance has also voiced concern that Ukraine is using ammunition faster than it can be replenished.
Russia controls about 20% of Ukrainian territory, far short of the quick, countrywide takeover that had been predicted when Russia invaded its neighbor on February 24, 2022.
VOA Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze recently conducted a wide-ranging interview with Kyrylo Budanov, chief of the main intelligence directorate at the Ukrainian defense ministry in Kyiv. Budanov spoke of what to expect in the coming months as Russia intensifies its military campaign in Ukraine. The interview has been edited for clarity.
VOA: You are the only person, in fact, as people close to the processes say, who at the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, even before the start of a full-scale invasion, emphasized the need to be ready for a major Russian offensive. Have you been heard then?
Kyrylo Budanov, military intelligence chief, Ministry of Defense of Ukraine: Since today is already the 25th [of February 2023] and Russia has not been able to fulfill any of its strategic tasks, we can see that, at least partly, I was heard. At that time, let’s say different people had different opinions; however, as the period of February 2022 approached … certain steps were taken and it was because of this that Russia was unable to implement its plan on the 24th.”
VOA: You said, “Because of it.” Because of what?
Budanov: As an example, I can give you that already on the 23rd [of February 2022], our aviation was dispersed. So, when the missile attacks began on the 24th [of February 2022], the losses in our combat aviation were almost minimal, almost zero. These are little-known steps, a lot of them were taken at the last moment, probably, but they were taken.
VOA: How else did Ukraine manage to survive, during the first, very difficult days of the full-scale invasion?
Budanov: Thanks to our people, heroism. What else can I add? Everyone saw … Russia is out there crying that this is their Great Patriotic War; in fact, it is not yet for them. But for us, it is actually a Great Patriotic War. Everyone, from teenagers to old men, at that time, everyone stood up for defense.
VOA: Ukraine and Russia have very different military power, of course, both in terms of manpower and military equipment. What does Ukraine need most today in order to make a breakthrough in this military process?
Budanov: I don’t think I will say anything new for you; it is the intensification of weapons supply. Intensification. “Armament is coming, but the pace and volume are not sufficient for a breakthrough.”
VOA: Is it about some special, specific equipment, additional equipment, or is it about what is already supplied?
Budanov: Mostly about what I think is already supplied. In addition, we need attack aircraft, which as of now have not yet arrived.
VOA: There are many calls for the provision of F-16s to Ukraine. Is F-16 a panacea? Are there different types of similar weapons that Ukraine needs?
Budanov: In my opinion, we need attack aircraft. F-16 and similar platforms are not attack aircraft. Assault aircraft, in the USA, are first of all, A10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. This is also army aviation, but these are attack helicopters of the AH-64 type and so on. These are aerial platforms designed for ground strikes.
VOA: Why, then, does the president of Ukraine and his team talk specifically about the F-16?
Budanov: As I already said, this is my exclusively subjective vision, let’s say so. Maybe someone sees a different concept.
VOA: There is a lot of talk about a major Russian offensive. There were predictions that there would be massive missile shelling on the 23rd, 24th [of February 2023]. We did not see it.
Budanov: Thank God, it hasn’t happened yet. But this, let’s face it, unfortunately, is quite an everyday matter for Ukraine now. The only irregularity in it is that each time, the time between missile strikes increases, and the number of missiles in the strikes decreases. Here is the only regularity.
VOA: And what is the reason for this trend?
Budanov: Reduction of missile stocks. There is no other reason. They are already, in fact, ranging almost at zero.
VOA: There is a lot of talk about China being able to supply weapons for [Russia].
Budanov: I do not share this opinion. As of now, I do not think that China will agree to the supply of weapons to Russia. I see no indication that such things are even being negotiated.
VOA: American officials are also talking about it…
Budanov: I am the head of intelligence and, excuse me, but I rely, not on the opinion, with all due respect, of individual people, but only on facts. I do not see such facts.
VOA: Where else can Russia get supplies to continue the war in Ukraine today?
Budanov: Well, let’s say, if you are interested in other countries, as I understand from your question, in fact, almost the only country that actually supplies more or less serious weapons is Iran. I won’t tell you anything new either. There was information that something was coming from North Korea, but we have no confirmation of that. And there is not a single case when we would record that here is some kind of weapon that came from North Korea, that it was used here. Maybe we just haven’t seen it yet or it goes to some other, let’s say, needs. Well, let’s say, other countries, Russia is just trying to buy anything, anywhere. Because their problems are significant. Serbia, which everyone in Russia hoped for, refused to supply weapons. There are certain efforts to buy through third countries. Large-scale withdrawal of weapons. Now they are trying with Myanmar, we will see what will come of it in time. But in fact, Russia is limited, let’s say, by Iran in terms of weapons. As of now.
VOA: From what you say, Russia is practically exhausting its military reserves. But it doesn’t look like (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is going to stop in this war.
Budanov: I’m sorry, but what, according to you, should it be so that somehow it looks different?
VOA: I’m not here to express my opinion, I’m asking. How can Russia continue this war under these conditions?
Budanov: Let’s put it this way. Being in these conditions, Russia cannot afford, as of now, to admit that it will lose. This is, let’s say, a direct dependence of the stability of the regime on this factor. However, if you rephrase, reformulate your question: “Is Russia unanimous, let’s say, on the issue of continuing hostilities?” The answer will be no. Not unanimous. In terms of the top state leadership. Many have come to the understanding that, after all, something is wrong. Let’s put it this way.
VOA: So, there is a split in the Russian leadership now?
Budanov: Opinions are divided. This cannot be called a split. Opinions are divided. And there are not so many people who speak out, in the leadership, I emphasize, for the fact that there is a war until the end and so on. For the most part, those people who are in favor of it, let’s say, behind this desire, they have a banal fear of responsibility. Because there are a certain number of people who will not be able to say that somehow a decision was made there without us, it was not us. There are very few of them, by the way.
VOA: And those people who do not agree with this war, do they have an influence on the decision, do they have an influence on Putin?
Budanov: Everyone is waiting for a certain moment when, let’s say, the tower of the Kremlin, which advocates a unanimous war, figuratively speaking, leans against the wall and admits that it is not going well. It’s a dead end.
VOA: And then? What to expect?
Budanov: Then we will see how things will go on. If you want to lead to the idea that, well, then they will get along there. They will not get along. Nothing will happen without our decisive actions.
VOA: I have heard such thoughts among the political elite in the USA that they do not see how this war can end, and in particular, maybe it can be just some kind of long-term, deep, unstable truce. Do you see it?
Budanov: I do not believe in this. No. First of all, Ukraine will not agree to such conditions; this is the first reason why it is unrealistic. And secondly, it simply won’t happen. And Russia is not ready for long-term hostilities. I am telling you this as the head of the military intelligence service. They show in every possible way that they are ready for “a war for decades,” but in reality, their resources are quite limited. Both in time and in volume. And they know it very well.
VOA: So they are also in a hurry?
Budanov: Everyone will be in a hurry right now.
VOA: We have already talked many times about the fact that the next three months will be decisive.
Budanov: Not just decisive. They will be quite active. Well, very active. Which will determine the further course of events. It’s active combat if you’re leading to that. This is what’s going to happen. Efforts will be on both sides.
VOA: Are we talking today about the east, Donetsk, Luhansk region. Or we are talking about the South?
Budanov: Absolutely everywhere.
VOA: Are we talking about the north?
Budanov: North, do you mean Russia’s attempt to attack Kyiv? Let’s put it this way. We do not know of such plans and there are no signs of any real ones. It’s not that we don’t know them, they just don’t exist. Maybe when they get certain defeats, they will look for a quick solution, but it will be a disaster for them. Another one, similar to what happened back then [in February-March 2022].
VOA: From the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, even before the full-scale invasion, very active cooperation with the intelligence services of the USA and Great Britain began.
Budanov: You are wrong; this cooperation has been going on for many years. It just burst into the mass media now, let’s put it this way. This cooperation has a long history.
VOA: How important is it for Ukraine today?
Budanov: With no exaggeration, you understand that we need everyone’s help now. These are common truths. This helps us. Certain technical capabilities of the U.S., which we do not have, they significantly add to our understanding. First of all, it concerns the military component. Such as, movement at a considerable depth and so on.
VOA: Do you have ongoing cooperation with senior intelligence management? If possible, how does this cooperation take place?
Budanov: What intelligence?
VOA: In particular, the USA.
Budanov: We have all communications.
VOA: Now, about Ukrainian defense capability. During this year, in fact, for the first time, Ukraine strengthened militarily very much, and was also able to go further in its technical equipment and developments. What progressive changes have taken place in the army and in intelligence in particular?
Budanov: Let’s put it this way, we have accelerated quite a lot, intensified the pace of reconnaissance of everything related to unmanned aircraft complexes. This area is developing very actively. This is, in principle, such a general global trend, and Ukraine, as, unfortunately, Russia, in this aspect did not become an exception. It should be mentioned, as an example, that the first thing Russia began to buy was drones. Drones were the first thing that they, and the most important thing, that in principle they try to get from all over the world.
VOA: Ukraine uses, and has an IT industry, very actively. Can today’s Ukraine really be of service in the same way, in particular to NATO countries, because there is talk that after the end of the war, Ukraine will be one of the most powerful military machines in Europe. Can you agree with this?
Budanov: Ukraine will never serve anyone. But becoming a reliable partner, well, it has already happened in fact.
VOA: How can Ukraine be useful as a partner today?
Budanov: Ukraine is now the guarantor of security, in fact, for the whole of Europe. And this is true without exaggeration. Let’s put it this way. All of Eastern Europe understands this absolutely clearly. There are different opinions further, but what concerns Eastern Europe, everyone agrees on this. And in fact, why is everyone trying so hard to help Ukrainians in every possible way? Because if it somehow happened that Ukraine would have fallen, they would be next. And I’m sorry, but the capabilities of these countries are in no way comparable to Ukraine. Everything would be much worse there.
VOA: It is clear that the countries of Eastern Europe understand very well that they are next, that is why they are very active, their leaders talk about it and lobby for the interests of Ukraine and their interests, first of all. Why do you think, especially in the countries of Western Europe, there is no such deep understanding of the danger that comes from Russia?
Budanov: I am sorry, but what is the danger for them other than this, purely hypothetical? Tell me. What could even be in theory?
If, this [aggression] went to the east of Europe, then they would understand that there is a problem, because it would come closer to them. Well, that already happened. After the end of the Second World War, the Warsaw bloc and the NATO bloc stood close to each other. Then everyone understood it. Then such a conditional buffer appeared. Everyone started saying that, well, in fact, you can trade and live normally with Russia. It’s some of their business there; it’s something of theirs, and we don’t get into that. Well, it was the same. Very recently.
VOA: So, Ukraine today, in fact, creates new trends in international politics to some extent?
Budanov: Thanks to the idiocy of the Russians, all their biggest geopolitical horror stories have become a reality. And Ukraine will become one of the most powerful states, and, let’s say, they have already encountered Western weapons. And we all disposed of, let’s say, jointly, all the remains of Soviet weapons from around the world. And they threw out the defense industrial complex of the Russian Federation for many years from the world arms trade. And, let’s say, yes, they limited the activity of their defense industrial complex. They disposed of, in fact, the entire able-bodied part of their army. This, again, sets back their military ambitions for many years. Because simply all specialists, the majority no longer exist.
VOA: If you’re talking about Russia, I see here are maps of what Russia could look like.
Budanov: This is not what it might look like. This is their future. Their very real future.
VOA: So, you see the division of Russia after this war?
Budanov: There are already problems in Russia and they will only increase. The sooner they leave Ukraine, the more chances, in theory, they will have to keep their territory within more or less similar borders. It will not be the same as it was, but more or less similar. Perhaps it will become a real federation, because in fact, if you look at their legislation, they are closer to a unitary state, although they are called a federation. It could turn into a confederation. And so on. As it was, there will be nothing to hold on to.
VOA: You recently visited the Vatican. You have been meeting with the pope. What was the purpose of this visit? Why is the pope himself important?
Budanov: Let’s put it this way. Since I hold several positions, and one of them is the head of the center for the exchange of prisoners of war, I have to, let’s say, try all the mechanisms that even hypothetically exist in the world. This was my main, let’s say, goal.
VOA: That the pope would help in the exchange process.
Budanov: Let’s say, try to connect the Holy See to this process as well.
Budanov: Let’s put it this way, altogether the mechanisms gave the result we have.
VOA: How does this exchange process take place today, and how possible and effective is dialogue with Russia in this particular context, the return of prisoners of war?
Budanov: The situation is unique in all aspects. Because, maybe it was somewhere, but we have consulted with many foreign partners, how they do it. None of them conducted exchanges during hostilities. In principle, so far only we have succeeded in this. To say that everything is great is absolutely not the case, that would be a lie on my part. Because there are people and many of them in captivity. You can’t say that things are going great. You can’t say that it’s terrible either, well, I’m sorry, with all due respect and understanding of the delicacy of the issue. Because, again, these exchanges are going on and about 2,000 people have already been returned. This is quite a significant amount. Therefore, everything is in working order. Unfortunately, the Russian side often puts sticks in the wheels. But still, we find effective mechanisms that force them to take such steps [war prisoners exchange].
Budanov: We have returned about 2,000. You can understand, these will be significant numbers [the total number of those in captivity].
VOA: You say you are finding mechanisms that work. May I ask, perhaps which ones?
Budanov: We are a special service. I’m sorry, our forms and methods of work are… read the books, they haven’t changed in years.
VOA: Is it possible to publish the numbers of Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine?
Budanov: I tell you again, you should understand. Almost 2,000 were exchanged.
VOA: But are these numbers similar in the total amount? How many prisoners of war are there now on both sides?
Budanov: Unfortunately, they have more prisoners of war than we do. This is very easy to explain. First of all, they captured 90% of all prisoners of war in the first days. The first days, the first month… We do not take civilians as prisoners. There are a lot of women, unfortunately, and children, there are all kinds of elders, postmen, railway workers, mayors, and janitors. Everyone is there.
VOA: Are there any that Ukraine simply does not know — the number that is not recorded?
Budanov: Most likely, there are some, but believe me, 99%, we know who they are.
VOA: Recently, there has been a lot of information about the fact that (Ukrainian) President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy announced Russia’s desire to overthrow the leadership of Moldova. It was very well publicized, there was a lot of talk about it, and Moldova changed its government almost immediately after that. What risks do you see from that side?
Budanov: When you mentioned the change of government, you have to look at the person who came. (Prime Minister) Dorin Recean. He is quite a professional person and he is a military bloc, a power bloc; it is more correct to say so. Therefore, it is clear that the situation is not the easiest for Moldova. By the way, Transnistria (PMR ) plays not the first role here. This is precisely the issue of the Russian Federation’s attempt to overthrow the constitutional authority. Well, as you can see, they haven’t succeeded yet. A number of measures have been applied, which, for sure, will give results, and all these plans will once again fail. They have already partially experienced this failure in its infancy.
VOA: How important was it for you to convey this information to the Moldovan leadership? How important do you see the risks on that part?
Budanov: I’m telling you, the set of measures that have been taken and are being taken make Russia’s efforts impossible.
VOA: Another question about nuclear weapons. Many people talk about this and say that if Ukraine approaches the borders of Crimea and really wants to take Crimea, then the last step will be, for Putin to use nuclear weapons?
Budanov: And how many times has it happened already? Red line — Russia will use nuclear weapons, Russia is already using it, almost. The first time it happened at the end of spring, and then once every month-and-a-half. The apogee was from late summer to mid-autumn. At that point it was that they will launch a nuclear strike right there tomorrow. Did they? No, they did not. Can they do it? Hypothetically, everything in life is possible. In reality? No, it’s not possible. Because the Russian Federation is a state, let’s say, a soap bubble.
I mean in a sense that they inflate everything. There are not such idiots sitting there as they want to appear to the world. They clearly understand the first thing: nuclear weapons are not [offensive] weapons. It is a means of strategic deterrence. Secondly: the use of a nuclear deterrent by anyone in the world will lead to fatal consequences for whomever does it. No matter who it is.
VOA: Even if we are talking about tactical nuclear weapons?
Budanov: What’s the difference? This is the answer.
VOA: What is the deterrent to them not to do it?
Budanov: Again, if you and I will get into details of this issue, we will spend hours. With all the power of the Soviet Union, and it is incomparable with the Russian Federation today, absolutely incomparable. Several times everything was on the edge. Well, have they used it? No. And can it be used? No it cannot. This is not a weapon, I tell you again, it is officially a means of strategic deterrence.
VOA: Final question. How do you see the end of this war?
Budanov: The most difficult question. The end of the war in the first stage will be the return to the administrative borders of 1991. This is probably the correct answer. This will cause a change in the entire architecture and security, and the economy, and everything else in the entire region. That’s why I say: At the first stage, this is access to the administrative borders.
Next, we need to look at the security zone around Ukraine, at least from the Russian side. To a depth of 100 kilometers or more. And so on.