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KIYV, Ukraine — The light is dim and the windows are sandbagged. Classical music plays on an unseen speaker somewhere. The man sitting at the large wooden desk, in this fortified bunker office on the Rybalsky Peninsula, on the edge of the Dnipro River, has a pistol holstered at his side.
“They’ve been trying to charge me with terrorism since 2016,” Maj. Gen. Kyrlo Budanov, the chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, said. “But I want to begin by saying that the things they call ‘terrorism,’ we call liberation. And this began not because I went mad and started killing people in Moscow. It happened because they invaded our country back in 2014.”
“They” refers to the Russian government. On April 21, just a few days before Yahoo News sat down with Ukraine’s most recognizable spymaster, the Lefortovo District Court of Moscow arrested Budanov in absentia. He stands accused of creating “a terrorist community,” the “illegal acquisition of weapons by a group of persons,” and “the illegal acquisition of explosive devices by a group of persons.”
The implication is that Budanov’s intelligence service, more commonly known by its Ukrainian acronym HUR, was behind a string of audacious and lethal attacks inside Russian territory — or what the Kremlin considers to be Russian territory. These include the August car-bomb assassination of Daria Dugina, daughter of Russia’s notorious far-right theorist Aleksandr Dugin, in central Moscow, and the suspected truck bombing in October that partially dismantled the Kerch Bridge, Russia’s only direct link from the Black Sea to occupied Crimea.
U.S. intelligence has attributed Dugina’s killing to the Ukrainian government, although not specifically to the HUR. Asked about this allegation, Budanov said, “Don’t continue with that topic. All I will comment on is that we’ve been killing Russians and we will keep killing Russians anywhere on the face of this world until the complete victory of Ukraine.”
At 37, Budanov has a full face, dotted with light stubble and a slightly shorn forelock, possibly to raise his hairline in an effort to appear older. He is one of the youngest generals in modern Ukrainian history, and probably the youngest director the HUR has ever had — certainly the most famous. Memes of Budanov grinning or his eyes alight in bright red, à la Superman villain General Zod, routinely circulate online whenever something catches fire in Russia or goes badly wrong for Russian occupiers on the Ukrainian battlefield.
After a surprise Dec. 26 drone attack on the Engels-2 air base in Saratov, home to Russian strategic bombers, Budanov told an interviewer he expected to see more of its kind, “deeper and deeper” in enemy territory. According to the Washington Post, the CIA had to persuade Budanov to “postpone” HUR anniversary strikes on Russia on Feb. 24, including one proposed naval-borne TNT assault at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.
Officially, the HUR claims no responsibility for any cross-border attacks, of which there have been many documented examples. It adopts a Mossad-like air of menacing ambiguity whenever they occur.
On some matters, though, Budanov is unambiguous. “As of today, Russia has no military, economic or political potential to create another attempt for a serious offensive anywhere in Ukraine,” he said. “Besides that, it is completely capable of waging serious defensive operations, and this is the very problem we are about to face,” referring to Ukraine’s anticipated counteroffensive.
Budanov believes that Russia’s supply of missiles are running low, almost to the point of exhaustion. “They are trying to accumulate certain stocks and have them ready in order to try to disrupt our offensive, but the truth is that they have taken their stocks almost to zero.”
As with Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, Budanov declines to offer details of where and when that campaign will be. But he is equally confident that occupied Crimea “will be liberated because our victory is impossible without liberating Crimea.”
Policymakers in Washington have long fretted that a recapture of Crimea, assuming such a thing is even feasible, would be something Russian President Vladimir Putin could not tolerate and would prompt him to undertake a massive retaliation, possibly with weapons of mass destruction, but Budanov is not swayed by those fears.
“I’d like to underline here that it is unpleasant for me to recognize the following, but it’s the truth,” Budanov said. “Unfortunately, the Russian Federation knows how to work with the information space. That is why any event — imagine a rocket that falls into the Kremlin — they will show it as a victory for Russia. They will claim that they’ve prevented the biggest catastrophe to mankind by having that rocket fall into the Kremlin, that this missile has actually demolished the building it was supposed to and has even helped them. It sounds like a joke, but indeed, Russian society is accepting of such stupidities.”
Yahoo News’ interview with Budanov took place on April 24, more than a week before two drones were recorded striking the Kremlin, lightly singeing its domed roof. The Russian government has blamed Ukraine for the attack, which it hyperbolically characterized as an assassination attempt on Putin. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky denied his government’s involvement. “We don’t attack Putin or Moscow,” he said while on a trip to Finland. “We fight on our territory. We are defending our villages and cities.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington could not validate reports of the drone attacks, adding, “I would take anything coming out of the Kremlin with a very large shaker of salt.”
Budanov is calculating and curt. He speaks English well enough to field questions in the language but prefers to answer more precisely in Ukrainian. Often he begins replying before the question has fully been articulated, and throughout the hour Yahoo News spent with him, he at times betrayed an impatience bordering on hostility.
Some of his more eyebrow-raising claims — that Putin is “terminally ill with cancer” and other ailments, or that the Putin shown in photographs or on television is a body double — have a whiff of psychological warfare to them. In that regard, they are hugely successful, fueling tabloid speculation to the point that even Western intelligence has had to sprinkle cold water on them.
“Back in 2021, there was a statement, I believe it was mine,” Budanov said, “that Putin is greatly sick with cancer. It has been two years since then and now everyone starts saying something might be wrong with him. Time will show who was right.” (Bill Burns, the CIA director, characterized Putin as “entirely too healthy” at a public event in July 2022.)
Whatever the veracity and intent of Budanov’s big assertions, there is no doubt he has at his disposal a vast intelligence-gathering capability, if not an extensive agent network operating inside Russia, as is obvious from what the HUR has managed to do. Behind his chair hangs a large portrait of an owl grasping a bat in its talons. This is in homage to the HUR’s official emblem, whose motto in Latin is sapiens dominabitur astris, “The wise man will rule the stars.” The nocturnal bird of prey was selected by a previous HUR director because the bat features in the emblem of the special forces of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency and the HUR’s counterpart. “And owls eat bats,” that director said.
About four months before the Russian invasion, one of his deputies showed Yahoo News a website HUR put together featuring the personal photographs, passport, even the results of a prostate ultrasound, all belonging to Maj. Gen. Andrey Averyanov, commander of Russian GRU Unit 29155. Also featured were the passports of the various young Russian women with whom Averyanov has traveled on “business trips” to Sochi and Crimea. Unit 29155 is an elite murder-and-sabotage squad that Western intelligence has blamed for poisoning GRU defector Sergei Skripal, along with his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, England, in 2018; mounting a failed coup in Montenegro; and blowing up a series of weapons and ammunition facilities in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
How did the HUR manage to quite literally see up the backside of a senior Russian intelligence operative? This question prompted a rare bit of laughter from Budanov. “We are not a consuming body,” he said, “we are a collecting body. That is why everything we say oftentimes is very much different from what others say. We base our assessment on things that are real and some other people watch a lot of TV or just talk to other people and that’s how they build their assessments. The fact that we are geographically close to Russia — let’s put it this way: We have capabilities in the Russian Federation, quite powerful ones.”
Budanov was appointed to what became a crucial wartime intelligence role in August 2020 after having served a brief stint as deputy director of one of the departments of Ukraine’s foreign intelligence service. Before that, he was a HUR Spetsnaz or special forces commando dispatched behind enemy lines: Even now, he occasionally appears in selfies from the front, kitted out in full tactical gear, in what one senior HUR official said are no mere photo ops: “Budanov still takes part in special operations.”
In August 2016, so one story goes, he was part of a saboteur campaign in Crimea that killed a lieutenant colonel of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, one of the successor agencies of the Soviet KGB. Whatever Budanov got up to as a soldier, it was enough to merit receipt of Ukraine’s Order for Courage, roughly equivalent to the Medal of Valor. Russia has tried to assassinate Budanov ever since, including by blowing up his Chevrolet Evanda in 2019 (the bomb detonated too early).
There is a birdcage at one end of Budanov’s office with two chirping canaries. An apocryphal but plausible tale has it that they’re here to die — that is, provide an early-warning system in the event poison gas is ever deployed in this room. The truth is more mundane: They’re just pets, as is the frog frantically trying to climb the glass wall of its aquarium behind Budanov.
According to leaked Pentagon intelligence, Budanov played an instrumental part in fortifying the besieged city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine. For months, the Russians have been devoting enormous resources and manpower into capturing the city, in itself of limited strategic significance, but symbolically a large prize for Moscow. Ukraine’s policy has been to bleed the Russians there for as long as possible in order to weaken their defensive capability when Kyiv presses its counteroffensive in the next few weeks.
The U.S. was highly skeptical of such a plan. It anticipated that Bakhmut would fall in January, and U.S. intelligence, as reported in the Pentagon leaks, cited Budanov describing conditions in the city as “catastrophic.” He personally ordered a Ukrainian special forces detachment, the so-called Kraken unit, to deploy to Bakhmut to help beat back the threat of Russian encirclement. It worked. Budanov, who correctly predicted the date and timing of Russia’s Feb. 24 full-scale invasion, is dismissive of those in the West who argued that the effort to save Bakhmut would fail or wasn’t worth the cost in untold Ukrainian lives.
“Whoever says this, and you just mentioned these leaks of U.S. materials — we can add to the statements of the Russian leadership at various levels,” he said. “They have been saying since June 2022 that they have almost captured Bakhmut. We are almost in May now and they are still capturing Bakhmut. It’s very easy to talk about territories you have no relation to. It happened in Syria, with people saying, ‘This can be given away, that can be taken.’ It happened in Chechnya. It happened also in Iraq.”
While Bakhmut remains contested, Russia has made unmistakable gains toward the center of the city, largely thanks to the Russian mercenary group Wagner, the vanguard fighting force that has suffered its own catastrophic losses. “It’s three times the number of killed in action that the United States faced on the Guadalcanal campaign in World War II, and that was over the course of five months,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said of Russian losses in Bakhmut on Monday. Nearly half of those killed in action since December, Kirby explained, were Wagner fighters.
Budanov esteems this enemy, now labeled by the U.S. as a transnational criminal organization, above all other Russian military formations. “Unlike the regular troops of the Russian military, Wagner engages in training,” Budanov said. “Even the convicts they recruit from Russian prisons are being trained to serve and that is why the results are a lot better than what normal regular army have. They are our enemy, but we need to admit that they are an enemy you’re not ashamed of. It’s incomparable to the level of regular troops. They are a lot higher.”
In yet another sign that the Bakhmut meat grinder has had serious repercussions in Russia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, this week took to social media to denounce the Russian Ministry of Defense, general staff and “fat-bellied” bureaucrats in Moscow for what he alleges is their refusal to supply adequate ammunition to his guns for hire. “My lads will not be taking senseless and unjustified casualties in Bakhmut without ammo,” Prigozhin said, surrounded by dozens of masked Wagner mercenaries, in a video. Whether a theatrical ploy or something more serious, he threatened to withdraw all his forces from Bakhmut on May 10, a decision that would in effect mean a Russian abandonment of the city.
For Budanov, Prigozhin has played politics over his private army’s sacrifices in the war since last year because he has to. “His political future is directly linked to his physical survival because there are too many forces in the Russian Federation who want to eliminate him. He obviously will try to defend himself because for him it’s not even an issue of exile or prison; it’s an issue of life and death.”