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The first time I met Kyrylo Budanov, commander of Ukraine's Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR) and the mastermind of many a thorn in Russia's side, was in November 2021. He was a young brigadier general, largely unknown beyond the borders of his homeland, where he was a special operations hero who was thrice wounded fighting the Russians since 2014. We sat down on couches in the middle of a busy Washington D.C. hotel lobby and he laid out how Russia was about to attack Ukraine as visitors milled about unaware of the heady discussion taking place. His prediction, which included a battle map, would prove prophetic just three months later.
Budanov, who reached out to me last week asking if I wanted to meet up with him during an otherwise secret trip to D.C., is now one of the world’s most famous sitting generals. He is the architect of the constant asymmetrical operations against Ukraine's great foe, Russia, and has become the subject of numerous stories, including interviews with The War Zone, and ubiquitous memes (more on that later).
A top target of Russia, it is no longer safe for him to meet in a crowded hotel lobby, so I agree to meet him in his room. Outside his door stands a burly man dressed in black, clearly security.
“Do you have a gun?” I am asked.
“No, I am a journalist,” I respond and with that, I am waived in.
Budanov greets me with a smile and a handshake. Unlike our last encounter, he is dressed not in his uniform, but in a dark blue suit, blue shirt and salmon-colored tie.
Against a sweeping vista of the U.S. capitol city seen through the huge window behind us, we sit down at a table with a bowl of fresh fruit, some untouched packs of nuts and bottles of water. For the next hour, through an interpreter, we discuss everything from his blunt assessment of the ongoing counteroffensive, attacks he helped orchestrate inside Russia, the systematic campaign against Russia's air defenses, warnings about Abrams tank usage, doubts about Prigozhin's death, what Ukraine needs from the U.S. and, of course, his favorite Budanov meme. All the while, sitting across from me, he stares that unnervingly stoic Budanov stare, the one you’ve seen in many photos.
At his request, out of concern for his security, we agree to hold the interview until after his journey to the U.S. is finally revealed through very public visits to the Pentagon and White House with his president, new defense secretary and their contingents.
Our exclusive conversation, reported in full, has been lightly edited for clarity and context.
TWZ: It's been a while since we actually saw each other. Is this the first time you’ve been back in Washington D.C. since?
TWZ: What brings you to Washington? Who you meeting with and what goals do you have for this visit? Have US officials asked you for any advice or insights?
KB: My current visit is not actually mine. It's part of a presidential visit and I'm assisting him on this trip. And surely there are meetings waiting for me with military leaders of this country as part of the presidential delegation.
TWZ: Is this the first time President Zelensky has asked you to come on one of these foreign trips?
TWZ: Can you tell me who you are meeting with?
KB: We'll have meetings within the DoD and the special services of the U.S.
TWZ: Will you meet with the CIA?
KB: (Laughs and declines to answer)
TWZ: Are you being asked by the U.S. for your insights based upon the defense that Ukraine's put up? Is the U.S. asking for your advice on how to fight a peer competitor?
KB: Thank God there's not a single place across the world that has that kind of competitor and that kind of fighting, so not war on that level of intensity. But if such recommendations are required from us, we'll gladly provide those.
TWZ: I want to talk a little bit about the ongoing counteroffensive. I know that you're not the general in charge of land forces, but as the eyes and ears of the Ukrainian military, what’s your assessment? Do you still believe that Ukraine will retake Crimea this year or will a counteroffensive push on until next year?
KB: Our counteroffensive operation started at the beginning of summer and is still ongoing. It hasn't stopped. And as you've rightly said I'm not the commander-in-chief of the General Staff. That is why questions about the tempo or progress of the counteroffensive operation should be addressed to the General Staff. But speaking of Crimea, you could not have missed that since the middle of August, there's been a certain intensification going on with regard to Crimea, and that might indirectly give you a hint about the answer to your question.
So first of all, the fact itself is that we're engaging the military infrastructure and military targets in occupied Crimea and the occupier’s infrastructure. If we're going deeper into strikes against the air defense system, it's more complicated here. First of all, the air defense systems themselves are very costly equipment and it takes a lot of time to produce those and Russian flags those systems because all this inventory is currently engaged in fighting against Ukraine and also in protection of Moscow. They've taken away air defenses from everywhere else.
That is why, naturally, when we engage in another and another air defense battalion of the Russian military, they need to think about where they can pull those systems from and where are they able to tolerate less defenses in other places.
The second point in engaging defenses is that we’re making those holes in the overall air defense coverage. Those holes are exploited for other things. Also, we're depleting their air defense missile stocks because those are not limitless. And from the political standpoint, we're also demonstrating the obvious inability of Russian air defense systems, which respectively makes them less lucrative on the world arms markets.
TWZ: And this is part of a coordinated campaign, it’s not just Crimea, right? You're doing this inside Russia, with the strikes on air bases and other targets and on Moscow?
KB: Let's put it like this, we have never confirmed [attacks on Moscow] officially (Budanov laughs) and I will be keeping that stance. But I can share my opinion about those strikes. All the above-mentioned factors clearly coincide with the strikes inside Russia. Especially when we're talking about the obviously decreasing demand for Russian weapons because when the whole world sees that some drones are attacking Moscow, nobody wants to buy Russian air defense systems any longer. And that is very painful for them. And it links back to additional factors which are absent when we're discussing Crimea.
One side note. There's a completely opposite situation in terms of demand on weapon systems. There's a very high demand on Ukrainian drones now. We can’t sell those now because all of them are used for warfighting, but after the war ends, this will have a lot of meaning.
Now speaking about the strikes deep into Russia, including Moscow, that are conducted by someone. There is a social side of it. Because now the Russian population and especially large Russian businesses really start to feel the impact of war. Because before that, it was just a war going on on TV. Yes, it did have some financial impact on big players, but smaller ones weren't even touched. But demonstrative strikes, such as strikes against Moscow city - the skyscraper district in Moscow - demonstrates to everyone that now it touches upon them.
Besides that, it undermines the belief of the population in an all-powerful Russian regime that is the strongest one in the world. They start asking those logical questions, like: "where's our air defenses that are supposed to protect us?" And they start blaming their authorities for that, for stealing all the money. The next aspect is strikes against critical military infrastructure. It includes oil refineries that supply fuel to the warfighting as well as the factories and plants that produce components for military equipment. So that’s the overall picture.
TWZ: Talk to me about the sabotage attack on Chkalovsky Air Field, located less than 20 miles from Moscow.
KB: Those were activities of sabotage groups.
TWZ: Are they connected to you?
KB: Of course all of those [groups] are in some kind of connection with us.
TWZ: Did you suggest that attack? Orchestrate it? Plan it?
KB: Of course. We’re assisting them, let’s put it that way.
TWZ: Did you select the target and help them figure out how to enter the base and blow up the planes?
KB: Let’s skip that one.
TWZ: What effect is being able to breach such a secure base having in Russia?
KB: The explanation here is the same because it was an attack conducted in a secure area actually inside Moscow because that airfield is within the greater Moscow [region]. It demonstrates the obvious inability of the regime to protect even its most critical and secure infrastructure. And if we're talking about airframes, of course, Russia has a lot of those but some of them, such as the Il-20, are not in big numbers available.
TWZ: Did you suggest that those particular aircraft be targeted?
KB: (Laughs) So we're going back to the spot where I didn't want to go.
TWZ: What is the military chatter you are picking up in the wake of this attack? Is there panic? Consternation?
KB: We're aware of the very negative reaction because they got the blame for it. This surely wasn't the task, but it's a side effect. And they received the blame because they were supposed to ensure security and they let those sabotage people come into that secure facility and conduct this sabotage operation.
TWZ: Who received the blame?
KB: The FSB. Besides that, of course, it's a blow against the political leaders, and military leadership of the Russian Federation because they are not able obviously to ensure proper guarding of strategic critical airfields in Moscow.
TWZ: Do you think they have a dartboard with your face on it at the FSB?
KB: (Laughs) I don’t know, I haven’t been there.
TWZ: I want to return a little bit to the counteroffensive. It's obviously a big part of what's going on. And you must get tired of being asked about the pace of this. What do you tell people when they bring that up?
KB: I'm also always referring those questions to the General Staff. They're doing the fight. I'm just assisting.
TWZ: Can you talk about how this will progress into the winter? When we first met and I asked if you were concerned about fighting in the cold, you said, 'It's no problem.' So does this pending weather concern you?
KB: It’s not a problem at all. And as everyone saw last time, it's not a problem to fight in winter for both sides - for us and for Russians. It's not a pleasant thing to do, but it's not a big deal. There's one very important nuance that makes a difference between current warfighting and the previous periods of fighting. Currently, all main instances of fighting are done on foot without using any materiel. This is linked to the high saturation of artillery systems on the forefront and also portable anti-tank weapons. And that's true for both sides. Those [armored] systems are not enough to create a gap in the orbits of the enemy - to create a powerful breakthrough as in classic doctrine. But it is well enough to deter any attempt of the enemy of any side to conduct that breakthrough with materiel and convoys.
Also, there's a high level of saturation with both anti-personnel and anti-tank minefields. Anti-tank mines are making a lot of difference because when such a mine goes off on their wheels, it completely destroys the wheels and that piece of materiel is not able to move any further. Damage done to a piece of equipment is minimal but it still cannot move any longer. Those anti-tank mines are a big problem for those tracked vehicles. And a new feature that hasn't been observed anywhere before is the high number of FPV [First Person Video] suicide drones on both sides which are able to engage practically any piece of equipment.
All of those above-mentioned factors reduced the possibility of using armored equipment in practically all of the main directions to the minimum. Now that hardware is only used for evacuation or to swiftly transport infantry teams to a particular spot but it doesn't take part in the fighting.
TWZ: Given that, those 31 Abrams tanks heading to Ukraine…
KB: We’re looking forward to seeing that. We haven't seen them yet.
TWZ: Will they make a difference given all these factors and given the difficulty of maneuvering in mud?
KB: They should be used in a very tailored way for very specific, well-crafted operations because if they are used at the front line and just in a combined arms fight, they will not live very long on the battlefield. They need to be used in those breakthrough operations, but very well-prepared.
TWZ: Are you confident that's going to happen? Let me step back to the situation in June near Malaya Tokmachka where there were a number of armored vehicles were destroyed.
KB: Actually there wasn't that much materiel that was destroyed. There was a lot of damaged materiel. And by now it's repaired. The number of those that were destroyed was not that high. But it's the very example we've just talked about. So if if we just deploy some battalion tank group into the battlefield somewhere, just as long as it gets under the range of artillery it will get hit.
I will share two other examples on the enemy side. Similar situations could be observed during Russian attempts to attack Vuhledar last winter. The same thing happened. They went on attack in combat convoys and there were dozens of pieces of equipment that just didn't get through. And by the way, what is peculiar about that specific operation was that it was commanded personally by Gen. [Sergei] Gerasimov, and when all that equipment was destroyed, he blamed everyone around him and just left the frontline.
I'll provide you with one more different example. It's about how Wagner units advanced. When they did manage to take Bakhmut [on May 21], they were not using armored vehicles. They were only using artillery support to infantry actions on foot. So practically they were just using infantry.
TWZ: That's expensive in terms of lives, right? Are you able to talk about the toll these kinds of attacks are taking on Ukrainian forces?
KB: Regretfully I don't possess precise numbers of our casualties. But it is completely logical that all of our casualties - both killed in action and wounded in action - went up as we shifted to offensive operations if we compare those with the previous periods. But there is still this very interesting peculiarity that even though we're on the offensive, our numbers of casualties are still lower than on the enemy’s side who are in defense.
But having described the overall realities of our current situation we’re smoothly coming to the conclusion that we will have to change something. The conclusion is that we'll need additional weapons systems and capabilities that could still change this balance we have today. Because looking at the situation solely from the perspective of manpower, if we compare the Ukrainian potential with Russian potential, the Russians have a lot more human resources. That is why we cannot keep on fighting just soldier on soldier. This will not deliver the results we want.
TWZ: So what do you have to do to change this?
KB: We need to resolve the issue of increasing numbers of overall artillery barrels on the battlefield. And we need longer-range weapon systems in order to engage their command posts, their logistics storages, etc., etc.
TWZ: When you meet with U.S. officials are you going to ask for [Army Tactical Missile System] ATACMS? And what are you going to say to convince them to provide ATACMS?
KB: I think that this issue will be raised.
TWZ: What’s your argument for them?
KB: My argumentation is very simple. The majority of [Russian] command posts and logistic storages are beyond the distance of 85 kilometers (about 50 miles) which is the maximum range for our current [Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS) munitions] - for [M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or] HIMARS that we have. The Russians just place command posts and other things beyond those distances so we don't have anything to reach them there. And the situation is the same with Russian aviation at the airfields. Fighting Russian aviation using air defense systems is very costly and ineffective. Aviation should be taken out at the air bases.
TWZ: Are you talking about airfields in Russia?
KB: No, we’re talking about the airfields in the occupied areas of Ukraine.
TWZ: Like those bases in Crimea.
KB: Crimea is Ukraine.
TWZ: On Tuesday, a U.S. official said the new Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), a replacement for ATACMS, is coming online soon and could potentially open up the availability of ATACMS for Ukraine. Do you have a sense of how many ATACMS the U.S. has that they can give you?
KB: So let's wait for the official announcements to be made. There are still different ways how this situation can turn out so let's wait for [the official announcement] but I can say conditionally that if it's 100 missiles, this won’t change the situation.
TWZ: You need thousands?
KB: At least hundreds.
TWZ: Do you think you will return to Ukraine with good news about ATACMS?
KB: I always hope for the better. We'll do everything to make that happen.
TWZ: Let me switch to the Russian side of this war. As Ukrainian forces push through that Robotyne-Verbove salient, as there's success near Bakhmut with the recent capture of Andriivka and Klischiivka, and as the Russians are trying to push through toward Kupiansk, how can the Russians man all these areas?
KB: It’s not actually like that.
TWZ: So tell me, because you know better than I do!
KB: The offensive operation in the south will continue as it's been ongoing as long as we have resources. In parallel to that, of course, are operations for the de-occupation of Bakhmut. You’ve very rightly mentioned that we recently have taken back Klischiivka, which looks like it's a very small [spot] of land, but it's important because it's on a hill overlooking the rest of the terrain.
The next step is to cut off all the supply routes that go into Bakhmut. Practically this operation we’re following is a track really similar to the Russian one which they used to take Bakhmut. The only difference is that they still conducted those frontal attacks on the city which led to very high casualties in manpower. We won’t be doing that. We will try and envelop the city and only after it's enveloped will we be entering the city.
And you mentioned the Russian actions in Kupiansk. Those are just local operations that cannot be called a campaign or an offensive operation. They had certain success a few months ago but after that they were stopped at certain defense lines and there's nothing happening since.
TWZ: Is the operation in Bakhmut designed to pin down Russian forces and keep them from reinforcing the Berdiansk and Melitopol attack axes?
KB: For sure, and it has delivered the result that we wanted. For example, the Russians recently redeployed their only reserve force - the 25th Army - which was just recently raised and hasn't completed its creation. Now it's redeployed to roughly the north of Bakhmut and that's the place where it's going to be buried.
TWZ: How many forces does the 25th Army have?
KB: About 15,000 men. It’s not that much. And besides that, the threat for Russians to lose Bakhmut makes them redeploy at all times additional and additional forces to the Bakhmut area, which of course drains their resources from other directions like the south.
TWZ: Speaking of which, are the Russians able to reinforce their defense against the Burdiansk and Melitopol pushes? Are they able to bring enough troops there to prevent Ukrainian advances, given all the stresses?
KB: So we're going back to the previous question. All that they have already have been thrown into the fire. And now all the backbone of current Russian airborne troops is in defense and trying to deter the movement of our offensive groupings in the south. Before that, there were units of the Russian 810th Naval Infantry Brigade. That brigade was completely defeated, completely smashed, and now they have withdrawn being replaced by airborne troops.
TWZ: How do you protect that Robotyne-Verbove salient against a Russian incursion?
KB: You can’t invent anything new. You have to be powerful in defense, but you have to be constantly pushing forward. In this case, they will just physically be unable to fight back. So to continue the way it actually happens now across the whole of the front line.
TWZ: Will you strike the Kerch Bridge again and if so, what will Putin do?
KB: It's not a question of will we strike or won’t we strike. We're doing that regularly so we will finish it. It’s just an issue of time.
TWZ: And what will Putin do?
KB: He'll get upset once again. What can he do?
TWZ: Did you sink the Project 22160 class patrol ship Sergey Kotov with uncrewed surface vessels (USV) and do you have any pictures to show that?
KB: It is damaged. Its propeller was damaged and also it's got a hole on the backside of the body on the right. It's 50 by 100 centimeters (about 5.5 square feet). So it will be sent for repairs and this ship will spend some time in the dock.
TWZ: Can you talk about some of the weapons you've been using - the modified Neptunes, the sea drones, the UAVs?
KB: We’re using everything we have available. The list of various drones produced in Ukraine is quite large now and we're using everything we can. The Neptunes are in the process of development, which is still ongoing and they are being improved and improved. But the problem with those is that we don't have the line to produce a lot of them. So the problem is in the quantity of those available.
TWZ: So when you request a strike with a modified Neptune, what kind of targets are you looking at given the limited number?
KB: The purpose of moves with those weapon systems is to make holes in Russian air defense coverage and then to exploit that hole in the air defense coverage for other operations.
TWZ: I want to do a complete shift here. Were you guys involved with the attack on a Wagner-backed militia in Sudan? CNN reported that Ukrainians were likely involved in the attack on the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) forces with FPV drones.
KB: I will only say the following: About two to three months ago I was giving an interview to one of the media, I don’t remember which specific one. I answered them back then that anywhere across the world we will be seeking and hunting down Russian military criminals, and sooner or later that time will come whenever they are. That is why we shouldn't be surprised when in any territory, something happens to Russian military criminals.
Then speaking about your specific question about Sudan, regretfully I cannot confirm or deny. I suppose it's not a big secret that there were and there still are Wagner fighters in the same way as everywhere in central Africa. Russia has led itself to a situation where it's on the verge of strategic collapse. Russia step-by-step will be gradually lose what it has won. It has paid a large price in terms of men, in terms of financial resources, everywhere across the world. The more Russia fights against us, the more it loses.
TWZ: Who killed former Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin?
KB: I wouldn’t be in a hurry to say he’s killed.
TWZ: You think he might be alive?
KB: I just wouldn't rush with that question. I don't possess any confirmation.
TWZ: You don’t have confirmation that he’s dead yet?
KB: We don’t possess that.
TWZ: Do you trust Elon Musk?
KB: (Laughs) In what sense?
TWZ: There was the discussion over Walter Isaacson’s book excerpt and whether Musk shut off Starlink to prevent a Ukrainian attack on Sevastopol last year, or whether as he claimed he denied a request to provide it.
KB: Look, [Starlink] is a private property of a private person. Yes we really very widely use his products and services. The whole of the line of contact talks to each other to some extent using his products and services. The only thing I can say here is that without those services and products it would be a catastrophe. But it is true that he did turn off his products and services over Crimea before. But there's another side to that truth. Everybody's been aware of that.
TWZ: So he did turn it off?
KB: This specific case everybody's referring to, there was a shutdown of the coverage over Crimea, but it wasn't at that specific moment. That shutdown was for a month. There might have been some specific cases I'm not aware of. But I'm totally sure that throughout the whole first period of the war, there was no coverage at all.
TWZ: But did he ever put it on and then shut it off?
KB: There have been no problems since it's been turned on over Crimea.
TWZ: I want to get to some personal questions. Are you still living in your office with your family? What’s that like?
KB: Yes, it’s like that.
TWZ: Are you concerned about your safety? Are the Russians trying to kill you?
KB: Why don't you understand that [my wife and I are living in my office]? Why is that strange for you?
TWZ: It’s not strange, I just wanted to get your reaction….
KB: We're absolutely fine. She has been living with me since the February invasion. And she's a police officer herself. She's actually a professor at our national police academy. She's teaching legal psychology. It’s not a problem for her as it might have been for someone else.
TWZ: In an excerpt from his new book, Financial Times reporter Christopher Miller writes about a situation where you were in a meeting with President Zelensky, Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister; Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine; Ivan Bakanov, head of the Security Service of Ukraine and then-Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. You laid out a map and you explained what was about to happen. Can you talk about that moment and what it was like to convince your fellow leaders that the Russians were actually going to invade?
KB: It's already history and frankly, currently, I cannot recall a specific meeting you're referring to but as an intelligence chief, surely I'm reporting the information I have to the leadership of the state and all the people involved in the administration.
TWZ: Were you disappointed in not being named defense minister?
KB: Absolutely not.
TWZ: Would you even want that job?
KB: No, I love my current job.
TWZ: I read that you were attending Ostroh Academy to study political science. Are you interested in running for office?
KB: You’re wrong. I’ll explain. I’m writing my PhDs there.
TWZ: What’s your thesis?
KB: Global interaction between special services across the world, how they interact, and how they influence their domestic policies.
TWZ: Are you going to write a book after this is all over?
KB: (Laughs) I'll write my PhD first. And under the calendar plan that they've provided me with I have two years to do that.
TWZ: When we first met, you were an up-and-coming one-star general - brigadier general - but outside of Ukraine not many people had known who you were. Now you’re world famous. What do you think about the memes like the Budnov eyes and the jokes?
https://twitter.com/sklounst_them/status/1705203480527360254 https://twitter.com/juha_remes/status/1705194995156697395 https://twitter.com/davidtong871/status/1704245534515724718
KB: (Laughs) I cannot influence those anyhow, what can I do about those? But some of them I need to admit surprised me (laughs). Especially after I had my haircut and there was this meme with Prigozhin’s head and mine. So it was right after his insurrection attempt in Russia and the meme was four pictures. First was mine and I said I will give you the sign. And then he is kind of asking what will be that sign and I say you'll get it. The next picture is me being bald (laughs). That was one I really kind of remember.
TWZ: Was that one of your favorites? Do you have a favorite?
KB: I like that one.
TWZ: Any message you want to give to the American public?
KB: No, I think we’ve covered everything. The only thing I can say is that Ukraine will be forever grateful for all the assistance that’s been provided to Ukraine. And the victory over the Russian Federation will be the same extent an American victory. It will be the same for Ukraine and America together. It will be our joint victory.
TWZ: When will that happen do you think?
KB: In any case it’s close.
TWZ: This year? Next year?
KB: So currently it's hard to prognose that because there are so many factors playing in and even if we go back to our offensive operation currently, in the General Staff, no one's being able to surely say for how long will that continue.
After the interview wrapped, Budanov and I have a few more minutes of small talk. Budanov agrees to some photographs and then goes back to his busy day. Meetings await at the Pentagon and White House. On Thursday, he accompanied President Zelensky to both. But despite being in Washington, he is never far removed from what is taking place back home.
Friday morning, there was a Ukrainian missile strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea. During a round of fact-check questions, I asked him about the GUR's role in that attack.
"We just gave some intelligence assistance," he tells me. "We always give 24/7 intel information to the General Staff."
It's the kind of assistance that has kept Kyrylo Budanov a hero in Ukraine and a wanted man to Russia.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org