Fighting in eastern Ukraine is fierce, but Russia doesn’t seem to be getting close to a victory in the battle for Donbas. Once again, the plans of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin are likely to get derailed.
In our attempts to presage Putin’s next moves, NV spoke with Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence.
Our conversation covered topics such as a potential Russian mobilization and how it could be “sold” to the Russian populace.
NV: On April 27, Russia initially planned to stage a sham “referendum” that would have proclaimed an independent “Kherson People’s Republic.” Now that this stratagem seems to have been discarded, what will they do with Kherson next?
Budanov: Russians are facing serious recruitment challenges there. Those on whom Moscow counted prior to the invasion, flaked out. A number of people did agree to cooperate (with the invaders). But they’re short on those who are both willing and able to actually govern a single district of Kherson. Their main problem is a lack of competent personnel.
Next up: what are they trying to establish there? In their lunacy, one of the options they’re weighing is to reconstitute the old Tavria province from Russian imperial times. It would include Crimea, Kherson, and parts of Mykolaiv, Donetsk, and Zaporizhzhia regions, with the provincial capital in Simferopol. This is what they’re pushing for now.
Another option, although it’s discussed much less frequently, is a so-called Celestial City. This entity is supposed to include Odesa and Kherson regions, parts of Mykolaiv and Donetsk regions, as well as the city of Dnipro. That’s another of their concepts. Like I said – pure lunacy.
These are the two insane ideas they’re taking completely seriously and are attempting to bring forth.
NV: They are hauling grain from Kherson Oblast. What are they trying to achieve? Starvation?
Budanov: Of course, they’re trying to induce a demographic and then a humanitarian crisis. That’s the only way they could subdue the majority of the local population. It’s much easier to coerce people by providing them with humanitarian aid, after you’ve taken everything away from them. In order to save millions, they will spend pocket change on breadcrumbs.
NV: Was this approach chosen after locals refused to accept their rule?
Budanov: (Ukrainians there) refused emphatically. (So,) the Russians went with genocide in response, nothing new there.
NV: What are the Russian objectives in the ongoing battle for Donbas? Annexing the region?
Budanov: They are still at a crossroads. And by “them,” I mean the Russian president (Putin) – he’s the only one making decisions. He is yet to decide whether to try and annex the Donbas, or leave it in Limbo. Some steps, however, have already been taken. First and foremost – Vladislav Surkov was replaced with Putin’s deputy chief of staff Sergey Kirienko as the Kremlin’s curator of the so-called “DPR” and “LPR.” Essentially, those are under direct Kremlin rule. It doesn’t resemble control over foreign territory. So, certain preparations are being made, but a final decision hasn’t been taken yet.
NV: What will it depend on then?
Budanov: On a multitude of factors. First, they need the entirety of the Donbas. Even in their warped reality it won’t be legitimate to have the region split between Russian and Ukrainian control. Once they have the whole of the Donbas, they could nominally claim that people there have “chosen their path.”
NV: Why are they taking so many people – from Mariupol, for example – to Russia?
Budanov: Just look at history – they’ve always done that. The Soviet Union did that in all its territories, and contemporary Russia is merely employing the same tactics, for several reasons. First, it displaces indigenous population with Russians, altering the socio-demographic structure of the region. Second, it resettles Ukrainians to Russia’s underdeveloped backwater, currently populated by poorly-educated, low-skill workforce. By comparison, Mariupol residents are Nobel laureates. This way, they are getting their hands on high-skill, but very cheap labor, since the deportees will be in almost slave-like conditions. It's a very pragmatic approach.
NV: How active are the guerrillas in the occupied territories? It’s rather unprecedented.
Budanov: I wouldn’t say unprecedented. We’ve been at war with Russia for eight years now, and insurgents – whatever you might call them – are very much active behind the enemy lines. We refer to this movement as the “agency element.” Nowadays, it has become widespread to call them “guerrillas” or “insurgents.” Basically, these are local people that remain loyal to Ukraine in spite of the temporary Russian occupation, and are working towards overthrowing the occupying regime.
Many successful enemy eliminations were made possible by them. Their contribution ranges from correcting our artillery fire and feeding us target data, to conducting special operations to exterminate enemy agents.
NV: What are the main challenges plaguing the Russian army? Their blitzkrieg failed, we’re in the 68th day of the war…
Budanov: All their ills have become apparent.
They conducted a massive PR campaign. All the money was spent on portraying the alleged might of the Russian army to the world. Now, everyone can see that there is no might to speak of.
The nominal military potentials of Russian and Ukrainian militaries before this invasion were not even remotely comparable. They had 10x, and in some areas – 20x advantage over us. But active combat exposed that their quantity does not translate at all into quality.
On top of that, Russian troops lack motivation. The losses they have already incurred are seriously affecting their morale. Russia is already engaged in covert mobilization, and is preparing to declare an overt mobilization soon. I’m curious as to how Putin will explain it to his populace. Why would Russia, with its supposed 2nd army in the world, need mobilization? Especially, given that their official reports insist everything is going as planned, and that Ukraine is militarily irrelevant. Based on some indicators, I suspect they will declare a mobilization for a war not with Ukraine, but with the “Anglo-Saxon world.” That’s how they will explain it all to their society.
NV: Earlier, you said that Russia was planning false flag operations on its soil, that would blame Ukraine for acts of terror in Russia and incite further hatred towards Ukrainians…
Budanov: Let me interrupt you there. How do you mean, “planning?” Russia is actively carrying them out. Look at what’s going on there. Numerous explosions, destroyed buildings, for which Moscow consistently blames Ukraine. Or the situation around Transnistria, for example. They are in a very comfortable position, being able to pin it all on us. Can anyone explain how all of that is possible?
NV: How are they planning to use Transnistria in this war?
Budanov: Militarily, Transnistria is a huge problem for them. They are saddled with this strip of land under their total control, with no land connection to it. It’s sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. However grand their posturing may be, there’s nothing significant they can do in Transnistria. All they have is around 1,300 Russian troops stationed there. Most of them are guarding warehouses in Kovbasne, the rest are in Mayak and Tiraspol.
NV: So, you’re saying that Transnistria isn’t a major threat to us?
Budanov: Not a major one, no. But it remains as a destabilizing factor in the region for Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.
NV: Is Russian going to declare mobilization on May 9?
Budanov: Yes, they are getting ready. They are currently doing an inventory of their reserves, calculating what force they can actually assemble through mobilization. That is a necessary step.
NV: What’s their plan for May 9? Victory in Donbas?
Budanov: That’s their goal, but it won’t come to pass. They don’t have enough time, not even close.
NV: How is the morale of Russian troops? We keep hearing reports they don’t even extract their wounded from the battlefields. How is their military dealing with heavy losses?
Budanov: They know about the true scope of their casualties. The Russian army is absolutely demotivated. Still, there is the military chain of command – orders are issued and will have to be followed. One has to carry them out, whether one likes it or not. Refusal to do so can land you in prison, or something else unpleasant will happen. In this sense, their morale is irrelevant – the Russians will follow orders, come what may.
NV: There are unconfirmed reports that the chief of Russia’s general staff, Valeri Gerasimov, was wounded near Izyum. Why was such a high-ranking official sent there in the first place?
Budanov: We have to come back to what we’ve discussed earlier – lack of competent personnel. Many Russian generals were forced to assume direct command at the battalion – or even regiment, in some cases – level. Hands-on control.
I’ll avoid commenting on Gerasimov’s alleged injury, but the fact that he had to personally go the frontlines says a lot. The apparent reason is the unacceptably slow pace of the Russian offensive. The occupation is failing, they are falling behind.
Their initial goal was to conclude the “special operation” by April 24; they failed to achieve it, spectacularly. Later they pivoted towards capturing at least Donbas by May 9. Should they fail again, it would further worsen the political presentation of their whole project. How will Putin present this parade of his? What could he say? All this talk about being at war with the entire “Anglo-Saxon world” will convince some – but not everyone. He can’t admit a defeat by Ukraine. That’s why he needs to conjure up some mighty opponent: to be able to say “Maybe we lost somewhat, but not to Ukraine.”
NV: What’s going on in his inner circle? There were reports of arrests within the FSB; something’s going on with Surkov.
Budanov: There was a certain purge, but the scope of it was rather exaggerated by most media.
NV: Exaggerated – in what sense?
Budanov: In both its scale and the seniority of the “purged” officials. True, there were major changes in the military command: military branch heads and armies’ commanders. These are not public figures, so most of it escaped media attention.
There were some changes and even arrests within the Russian security services. For instance – the famous general Sergey Beseda, who was responsible for FSB’s work on Ukraine. By the way, the whole thing about funding (arrested leader of pro-Russia OPZH political party and close personal friend of Putin’s) Viktor Medvedchuk – is related to Beseda.
But all this falls short of what everyone would like to see happen. Putin is not throwing his own men in jail by the thousands, alas. They are merely frantically looking for a scapegoat.
NV: Russia turned out to be not interested in Medvedchuk?
Budanov: In general, nobody needs traitors, not even Russia. It uses them, and then discards them. That’s it.
NV: Meaning – he will remain imprisoned in Ukraine…
Budanov: Who knows where he will rot in a cell, but he’s a spent asset at this point.
NV: For Russia?
Budanov: For everyone. His time has passed.
NV: There’s a certain sense that the West has finally realized that Ukraine can win this war. The United States voted for Lend-Lease, weapons are pouring in. Should we win in Donbas, the momentum will shift in our favor. Clearly, Russia will try something to prevent that. How real is the nuclear threat?
Budanov: There is always a chance nukes could be deployed. Strategic nuclear weapons make little sense to use, given how intimately close to Russia we are situated. But using tactical nukes will hasten Russia’s demise. This war will be over.
There are only two ways it can end.
NV: What are they?
Budanov: First: Russia fractures into three or more parts. Second: Russia remains more or less intact, with a change of leadership. Under the latter scenario, new Russian leader will say that Russia had nothing to do with what went down – it was all the doing of one deranged dictator. Moscow will hand over all the lands it occupies – from the Kuril Islands transferring to Japan, to Konigsberg returning to Germany.
Those are the options. Most of the Russian military and political leadership knows that much. That’s why there are so many vectors to establish dialogue with the West, regardless of their official rhetoric. Unofficially, they are afraid of losing their wealth, and understand how quickly everything will be over for them.
Worry not – Ukraine will emerge victorious.
NV: Could the war end and Putin remain alive?
Budanov: It’s one such strategy – to leave him an off-ramp; but it’s almost impossible. To the world, he is a war criminal. For him, this is end of the line – and it’s of his own making.