Ukraine’s Intel Chief: We Have Sources in the Kremlin, but We Need Jets
Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov is not surprised that Russia is making little headway in its all-out assault on his nation.
“We understood how it would go,” Budanov told me Friday morning, via a translator, in a far-ranging interview with Coffee or Die Magazine.
Budanov, head of his military’s defense intelligence agency, had good reason for his confidence.
The Ukrainian military intel chief said that both before Russia’s invasion and in the weeks since Ukraine has obtained a wealth of information about Russian intentions through human sources — including sources in the Kremlin — and cyber intelligence. Among many other things, those surreptitious insights allowed Ukraine to know back in November how and when Russia was planning to attack.
“We have sources, lots of sources working for us,” he told me. “Our sources are everywhere. In the army, in the political circles, as well as administration of the president.”
Beyond those sources, he said, Ukraine has developed a robust cyber intelligence operation that has allowed Ukraine to have “access to all the military defense complex in Russia.”
Budanov provided Coffee or Die a unique behind-the-scenes look into how Ukraine’s military and intelligence community has pulled off a string of stunning successes against their Russian foes in the invasion’s first month.
Budanov discussed the help Ukraine is getting from foreign intelligence agencies, how his directorate is overseeing operations of foreign fighters and homegrown guerrillas, the Russian propensity for treating its troops as disposable, and how Ukraine can hold off the Russians but really needs more modern arms from allies, like fifth-generation fighters.
A DC Meeting
Budanov, now 36, was appointed by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to his job running Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency on Aug. 5, 2020.
I first met Budanov in November 2021 at a hotel in Washington when he traveled to the US with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov to visit with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
A veteran of the already simmering eight-year conflict with Russia, Budanov began serving in the Donbas region shortly after Russia and its separatist allies there began attacking in 2014. He told me he has been wounded twice in that fighting, once in 2015 and again a year later while on missions for the special forces of the Ukrainian intelligence agency, known as the GUR.
Taking time from his busy schedule on a Saturday morning, Budanov told me that Russia was planning to be ready to attack Ukraine by late January or early February. He also provided a map laying out how Russia would attack, though thanks to a combination of a stiff Ukrainian resistance and poor Russian planning and execution, much of the initial plan Budanov showed me has failed to materialize.
After I spoke with Budanov in November, Moscow pushed back hard against his assessment, but then proved him right on Feb. 24 when it began what has been a devastating and deadly war on its smaller neighbor.
Since then, Budanov has provided me other valuable insights into Ukraine’s efforts to fight back, including how Ukraine was striking the long, stalled column of military vehicles advancing toward Kyiv and how Ukraine hit a Russian transport ship in the port of Berdyansk with a ground-based missile.
But in all our conversations, he never said how the Ukrainians seemed to know so much.
Despite Moscow’s denials and skepticism elsewhere, Budanov was steadfast about what he said in November, which proved fairly accurate.
“Not many people believe[d] in this,” he told me Friday, March 25, about his November assessments. “As a head of the intelligence agency, I said this and it happened in this way.”
The assessment, he said, was unwavering.
Ukraine’s intelligence community didn’t rely on terms like “I believe it will” happen. Or “I don’t believe.” Or “I want to be,” or “I don’t want it to be.”
“We just substantiate our information,” he said. “As time showed us, we were absolutely right.”
The reason, he explained Friday, is that Ukraine has managed to penetrate many layers of Russia’s military, political, and financial sectors, using the information to its great advantage.
One example he offered was the recent strike in Berdyansk that destroyed a Russian Alligator-class landing ship as it sat at a dock. Thanks to its intelligence-gathering capabilities, Ukraine hit at the right moment to cause maximum damage.
“The rocket hit at the same time where the fuel trucks and the ammunition trucks came to the ship,” he said.
Ukraine’s intelligence coups, he added, have also allowed them to cull the ranks of Russian generals in Ukraine, a toll which now stands at seven, according to Agence France-Presse (for comparison, the US lost roughly the same number of generals to hostile action over the entirety of the Vietnam War).
Cyber and Allies
Having spies across Russia’s military and political landscape, including in Putin’s administration, has been extremely beneficial to Ukraine, Budanov said. And that human intelligence has been augmented by Ukraine’s rapidly increasing cyber intelligence capabilities, which Budanov claims offer a deep view into both Russian military plans and the country’s political and economic sectors.
“We have made considerable progress in cyber intelligence,” he said.
Aside from information about the Russian military, Ukraine has been able to “see the circulation of Russian money very well,” Budanov told me. “We will know where [the money goes], where [it is] accumulated and when they move [it]. We also can see what’s going on in the fuel area of Russia. And we also keep track of all the innovations of armaments.”
Ukraine, he said, also sees Russian troop communications.
“We see the letters and all they write,” he said.
Ukrainian intelligence services have released intercepted phone calls from Russian soldiers, leading to propaganda coups like revealing in early March the battlefield death of a Russian general, below.
As good as Ukraine’s organic intelligence has been, Budanov said his agency has also been getting help from allies.
Top US intelligence officials recently testified before Congress that its intelligence sharing with Ukraine was “revolutionary” and unlike anything in recent memory.
The heads of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, according to The Washington Post, “hinted at their intelligence successes.” Defense Intelligence Agency head Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier said the intelligence sharing was “revolutionary in terms of what we can do,” according to the Post. Paul Nakasone, director of the NSA, testified that “he had not seen a better sharing of accurate, timely and actionable intelligence in his 35 years of service,” according to the Post.
When I asked Budanov about what the US and its allies were sharing, his first response was “It’s our secret approach.”
Then he relented. A little.
“I can say only the cooperation with the British, US, and other special services and intelligence agencies are at a very high level,” he said.
“How much are you providing them?” I asked.
“It’s also a closed information,” he said.
The Road Ahead
Despite its human and cyber intelligence coups, Budanov is realistic about his nation’s fight against a belligerent with far more troops, aircraft, armor, and other means of conducting modern warfare.
I asked him whether Ukraine was winning, Russia was losing, or if this deadly onslaught has bogged down into a stalemate.
“I can tell you for now, it’s absolute war,” he answered. “We can see quite unrealistic wish of the Russian leadership to capture Kyiv in the first three days.”
Just two days into their war, Russia realized things weren’t going as well as they hoped, Budanov told me.
“So they made a plan called D-plus 30 and D-plus 60,” he said, explaining those numbers coincided with Russian expectations for how it would be doing one month, and then two months, into their war.
“We can say that we survived the first period,” Budanov said. “And they failed.”
When I asked him how he obtained those plans, Budanov laughed.
“It’s our secret,” he said.
And with those secrets, Budanov expressed cautious optimism about the future.
“As we can see the steps and we can see what they are doing, we hope we can say that D-plus 60 will be unsuccessful as well,” Budanov told me. “We believe that this. We see that the plus-60 plan will fail.”
The Russians, he said, are not helping themselves.
The Russians “are working very primitive,” he said when I asked him how Ukraine was able to capture so many tanks and other armor vehicles and other weapons. “They move in large columns” that Ukraine constantly attacks.
Budanov offered up the example of ongoing battles near Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine near the border with Belarus, that has been subjected to intense Russian bombardment.
“For the 10th time they come there,” Budanov said. “And for the 10th time, we destroy them. We destroy their artillery and rockets. Why they are doing this, I don’t understand myself. Chernihiv is just one example. There are many others.”
That ongoing battle, said Budanov, highlights how Russia’s war machine is not as vaunted as once believed. And that has led to Russian commanders needlessly sacrificing their troops.
“As we can see, the second army in the world is not that powerful as everybody saw it as the beginning,” he said. “And that’s one of the factors why they [move] their forces so irrationally.”
Russia’s losses, he said, continue to mount.
“Despite considerable superiority in armaments, despite the complete supremacy in the air, they are suffering considerable losses,” Budanov said. “Their morale is going down. It’s very low. The military leadership of Russia is seeing their losses, they throw new forces into combat. The commanders don’t have enough time to plan the operation. So they throw their people for destruction and we destroy them.”
While the “simple soldiers” see this, Budanov said leaders in their command are being increasingly risky as they “become more and more furious” about the continuing setbacks.
On Friday, a senior defense official at the Pentagon told reporters in a daily briefing that has in recent weeks morphed into a Groundhog Day-like accounting of Russian war efforts: No real advances anywhere in the country.
Instead, the official pointed out, Russia is setting up defensive positions near Kyiv as the Russian Ministry of Defense announced its forces were prioritizing efforts in the Donbas.
In its latest “war bulletin” issued Saturday morning and shared with Coffee or Die, Ukraine claims it has captured 1,000 Russian troops.
Budanov said many of those troops offer a dire view of Russia’s efforts.
“When I talk to many captives, we hear absolutely frank answers,” he said. “They don’t know what is happening and what they are doing here. We cannot call them highly motivated. I would say that’s the main reason for our success.”
But there are other factors.
Among them, Budanov said, are those who answered Zelenskyy’s call for foreign fighters, as well as indigenous guerrilla fighters conducting irregular and unconventional war on Russian troops.
Both efforts, he said, are under the control of his directorate.
Back on March 7, Budanov told me the foreigners who joined the International Legion for Territorial Defense of Ukraine were engaged in battle with Russians.
Friday, I asked how those forces were doing.
Their first employment was in Moshun, a small village north of Kyiv, he said.
“It was the hardest spot for much of the period of time during this war,” Budanov said. “Then we deployed them in Irpin, near Kyiv. As you can see, Moshun is completely liberated and Irpin is almost liberated. We can see that the experience of their employment is quite positive and successful.”
MiGs, and What It Will Take
Ukraine’s current successes have inspired a global following. I asked Budanov to give me a candid assessment of how long he really thinks Ukraine can hold out, given the overwhelming resources Russia still has left, and Ukraine’s current troop levels and armaments, which are being greatly augmented by a flow of smaller weapons like the man-portable anti-armor Javelin, Stinger anti-aircraft systems, Switchblade drones, and other items like those included in the most recent $800 million aid package ordered by US President Joe Biden.
His answer was both stoic and realistic.
“We stand and we can stand as long as possible and we are ready for that,” he told me. “We will liberate the whole of Ukraine and also the temporary occupied territories.”
But not without more help, he said.
“First of all, we need the armament support,” Budanov said. “We need serious armaments, not small arms. We need combat aviation, not the fourth generation. We need very serious air defense systems and anti-missile systems and artillery systems of 155 mm or larger. That is our main request. That’s what we need most. If you were held to small arms and light armaments, we won’t be able to solve any problems in this war.”
Without that equipment, he told me, “it won’t stop the progression of Russia.”
Budanov was particularly keen on so-called “fifth-generation” fighter aircraft.
The Joint Air Power Competence Centre in Germany described fifth-generation aircraft as “capable of operating effectively in highly contested combat environments, defined by the presence of the most capable current air and ground threats, and those reasonably expected to be operational in the foreseeable future.” US fifth-generation fighters are the Air Force’s F-22 and the F-35, operated by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.
“We don’t need poorly outdated aircraft of the fourth generation,” he said. These include Su-27s and MiG-29s, both of which are currently flown by both Russia and Ukraine.
Budanov justified his request by saying, “because our enemy Russia has most of its combat aviation of the fourth generation plus” — MiG-35s and Su-30s — “we won’t beat them numerically. We can beat them with quality.”
In the past, US officials have expressed skepticism that Ukraine’s pilots can operate unfamiliar American planes, like the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack planes that were recently a hot topic for possible transfers to Ukraine.
I asked Budanov if Ukrainian pilots — who have shown great skill and fortitude fighting a much larger enemy armed with much better aircraft — could operate far more advanced fifth-generation jets.
His answer was a mix of incredulity and insult.
“Do you think that I can simply answer your question?” he queried. “Do you think that our pilots are not at the same level as the pilot operating F-22? Our pilots who operate outdated aviation and they managed to hit and destroy the aviation that’s generation four plus plus. They can be trained and be able to do this.”
When I told Budanov about the skepticism of some in the Pentagon about the ability to operate and maintain such aircraft, he had an answer.
“My response is that they’re mistaken,” he said. “Absolutely, our pilots are ready to operate them.”
And keep them flying?
“So our strategic partners and allies first of all should help with the maintenance and supply of this machine,” he said. “And with our common efforts we will be able to beat the enemy.”
I put the question about Ukraine’s ability to fly and maintain fifth-generation aircraft to the senior US defense official briefing reporters Friday.
“I’m not aware of any requests from the Ukrainians for fifth-generation fighter aircraft,” the official told me, pointing to a readout of a call that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had with Reznikov Thursday.
“That topic did not come up,” the official said. “So that’s the first I’m hearing of this.”
I pushed the official on whether Ukraine’s pilots can fly fifth-generation jets.
“I don’t know what the skill sets are of the Ukrainian pilots,” the official told me. “I know that they’re flying old, ex-Soviet aircraft and fighter bombers. That’s what they’re trained on, that’s what they fly. They don’t have Western, fifth-generation aircraft in their inventory, but I can’t speak for the skill sets of each and every pilot. I don’t know.”
Budanov has no doubt about the skill of Ukraine pilots and said his nation will prevail regardless.
But he said an influx of updated arms will speed up the process.
“We will beat Russia in any case,” he said. “When we get this equipment, we will defeat them quicker. It’s going to help us to save lots of civilian lives.”
The young leader of his embattled nation’s defense intelligence agency remains grateful for the help that has been provided.
“I would like to thank you very much for your not being indifferent and for coming to help us in these difficult times,” he said in a message to the US and allies. “We will always remember this. But please, we need real help.”