Ukraine defends the world

Kyrylo Budanov: the Ukrainian Military Spy Chief who ‘Likes the Darkness’

January 19, 2024 / "Financial Times"

General who has survived 10 assassination attempts keeps Russia guessing about his directorate’s reach and abilities

No light enters the office of Ukraine’s military spymaster, Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov. The walls are fortified, the windows reinforced with sandbags, and the curtains drawn.

When Budanov, 38, arrived for a Financial Times interview, walking in through a doorway adorned with a religious icon, he immediately ordered an aide to turn off the lights.

“I like the darkness,” he said.

As head of the defence ministry’s Main Intelligence Unit (GUR), Budanov has masterminded Ukraine’s covert war against Russia, becoming one of the most lionised figures in Kyiv’s fightback. The survivor of 10 known assassination attempts, he lives, more or less continuously, in this office on the outskirts of the capital, encamped with patriotic art and war memorabilia on the walls and his pet frog Petro swimming in a tank beside his desk.

Budanov’s métier is running attacks behind enemy lines in Russian-occupied territory and Russia itself. But the spy chief rarely takes credit for them, keeping Moscow and the rest of the world guessing about his directorate’s reach and abilities. In his department’s latest feats this week, it flew attack drones as far as St Petersburg, striking an oil terminal, and targeted a gunpowder factory and an oil depot in Bryansk region, just north of the Ukrainian border.

The brazen tactics have at times irked Ukraine’s western backers; some fear it will provoke a brutal and perhaps even nuclear response from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The spy chief is unmoved by such concerns and vows to keep operating deep inside Russia to sabotage Putin’s war machine. “We do not foresee any drastic changes in the near future,” Budanov said. “Everything we have done, we will continue to do.”

Budanov knows this will be a trying year for Ukraine, now fighting Russia for more than a decade since the Kremlin’s soldiers, without insignia, appeared in Crimea and the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region.

“To say that everything is fine is not true,” Budanov said when asked about Ukraine’s much-vaunted counteroffensive last year failing to achieve its objectives. “To say that there is a catastrophe is also not true.” Ukraine will still manage to keep Putin at bay, he predicted, and has already proved that “the whole legend of [Russia’s] power is a soap bubble”.

A former special forces soldier who fought in the Donbas in 2014, Budanov has himself taken part in secret missions, including in the occupied Crimean peninsula. His body bears the scars: shrapnel from an anti-personnel mine once struck near his heart, nearly killing him; he has broken both his neck and back; and he has been shot in the arm. He was appointed to run the GUR by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in 2020. His covert operations — the Kremlin blamed the GUR for an explosion on the Crimean bridge in October 2022 — have revitalised the agency, which long played second fiddle to Ukraine’s much larger domestic security service, the SBU.

For this Budanov enjoys an almost cult status among Ukrainians, who share memes with his likeness on social media when military equipment explodes in Russia or Russian-controlled areas. But it has come at a cost. When the GUR chief does step out, he moves with an entourage of bodyguards and intelligence agents. Of the many assassination attempts against him — which he describes as “nothing special” — the closest call came in 2019, when a bomb placed beneath his vehicle exploded prematurely. He was uninjured.

His wife Marianna Budanova was less fortunate when she was intentionally poisoned with heavy metals in November, along with several GUR officers, according to the agency. “She’s getting treatment, she feels better now,” Budanov said. He declined to elaborate whether he or his wife was the intended target of the poisoning. Budanov was reluctant to offer an assessment of Ukraine’s current military operations, deferring to the army’s general staff. But he warned that “it is not even conceivable to think that we can do without mobilisation” — echoing the top brass’s call for more recruits. “The shortage [of manpower] is palpable,” he said.

Zelenskyy has said his army chiefs asked him to mobilise about 400,000 to 500,000 new soldiers to replace those killed or wounded, and to rest those involved in the most intense fighting. A year ago, Budanov predicted that Ukrainian forces, riding high from successful 2022 counteroffensives that liberated much of the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, would push on all the way to Crimea.

Ukrainian troops never managed to decisively breach Russia’s heavily fortified defences: the frontline remains almost the same as it looked a year ago. But Budanov maintains he was not wrong. “Although the original plans suggested something different, we kept our promise. This summer, our units repeatedly entered Crimea,” he said, referring to his commandos sneaking on to the peninsula to carry out raids on Russian bases.

Turning to arms production, Budanov said Russia was expending more weapons and munitions than it can make, while struggling with quality control.

“This is precisely what explains Russia’s search for weapons in other countries,” he said. North Korea is Russia’s biggest arms supplier at present, Budanov said. “They did transfer a significant amount of artillery ammunition. This allowed Russia to breathe a little.” He added: “Without their help, the situation would have been catastrophic.” But Russia would prefer not to rely on outside help. “This has always been considered beneath them, it’s an indignity,” Budanov explained.

Another challenge facing Russia is manpower. Moscow is losing as many or more troops than it can recruit, according to Budanov. His aide, Vadym Skibitskyi, said this week that about 1,000 to 1,100 people join the Russian army every day, through mobilisation or voluntarily.

Where mobilisation falls short, mercenary groups help fill the ranks, Budanov said, mentioning the Wagner group, founded by the late Russian caterer turned warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin. This brings Budanov to a kind of intervention he is well known for: dramatic assertions that are almost impossible to verify. “Wagner exists,” Budanov said, dismissing reports that it had been dismantled.

“And speaking of Prigozhin, I wouldn’t be so fast with conclusions,” he said in reference to the warlord’s reported death in a plane crash last year — an apparent assassination the west believes was ordered by Putin. The Kremlin denied involvement and said that DNA proved Prigozhin died. But his body was never seen publicly.

“I’m not saying that he’s not dead or that he’s dead,” Budanov said. “I’m saying that there’s not a single piece of evidence that he’s dead.”

Another favourite Budanov hobbyhorse is the health of Putin. In the past he has claimed that the Russian president has cancer, and Budanov insists he regularly sees “clones” of Putin on television. Asked for evidence, Budanov said his analysts study Putin’s “physiognomy . . . ear lobes, the distance between the eyebrows, and so on”.

“It’s not that difficult. You can easily do this yourself,” he added, shrugging as if to suggest that the lookalikes were an obvious ruse. Finally returning to the subject of the war, Budanov declined to make any bold predictions for 2024. “No,” he said. “I hope that our success will be greater than theirs.” Then he slipped out of the darkened room.