Ukrainian spy chief defiant as military grapples with shortages

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“The Russians would be very happy to freeze everything how it is now,” Ukrainian military intelligence chief Lt.-Gen. Kyrylo Budanov said recently when asked for some insight into current Russian thinking.  

“To have us recognize the territory they’ve taken as Russian. And they would celebrate their victory,” he said in an interview with CBC News at his base in Kyiv on Monday.  

“It will never happen,” he added. 

Budanov was speaking the day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told a news conference in Kyiv that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in fighting since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago. 

It was a rare disclosure of a number and a considerably lower one than that estimated by American officials, who have put it at more than double that.   

“Thirty-one thousand Ukrainian soldiers have died in this war,” said Zelenskyy. “Not 300,000 or 150,000, or whatever [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his lying circle are saying. But each of these losses is a great loss for us.”

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As Kyiv marks two years since Russia’s invasion, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has revealed 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died fighting. He also hinted at a planned offensive while urging allies for more support.

Ukraine is under increasing pressure in the two-year-old conflict after its fall counter-offensive failed to pierce Russian front lines in the south and east of the country. It is struggling to deal with a lack of weapons, lack of soldiers and lack of international aid, according to Ukrainian officials. 

Zelenskyy also told the media that the plans for Ukraine’s counter-offensive had found their way to a desk in the Kremlin before it even began.  

“I’m not going to say more than the president,” Budanov said when asked about the intelligence leak.  

“We had, let’s say, information, evidence, that the plans became known to the Russian federation. It is a serious problem, and we are taking some action.”  

Youngest chief of defence intelligence

At 38, Budanov is the youngest head of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence, appointed to the post by Zelensky in 2020 and has already received three stars.  

He began his military career as a special operative and fought against Russian proxy forces in the east after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.  

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A recent report by the New York Times identified Budanov as one of the members of an elite force within the intelligence trained by the CIA in the past. 

Budanov is credited with increasing Ukraine’s drone capability, reportedly organizing more than 100 drone strikes on Russian soil and in Russian occupied parts of Ukraine. 

But he recognizes the problem. “Drones will never replace ground troops,” he said. “It is only a way to support them.” 

“With the help of a drone you can inflict losses on the enemy. But until, like in medieval times, a soldier comes and plants a flag, nothing will change.” 

Cryptic figure in the spotlight

At a government conference preceding the Zelenskyy media event, which brought nearly 30 government ministers and officials together to discuss the war effort for the year ahead, Budanov was one of the panellist and mobbed by journalists on the sidelines of the conference.  

A man in a green jacket surrounded by people holding microphones and cameras.
Budanov speaks with media at the forum Ukraine 2024, in Kyiv on Sunday. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

For someone used to operating in the shadows — quite literally, one journalist reported that Budanov ordered the lights off during an interview because he prefers the dark — the intelligence chief seems to seek out the public spotlight.  

He’s known for his cryptic social media posts timed with Ukrainian operations and enjoys widespread popularity in Ukraine.  

A small statuette of a wolf in sheep’s clothing is perched above the security x-ray machine when entering the building housing Budanov’s offices.  

The ante-chamber to his office was dark as advertised, lit by the screen of a giant TV playing what looked to be a fantasy movie and a map of Ukraine lit with little red dots marking activity. 

Rumoured power struggle

Earlier this year Budanov was touted as a potential replacement for Ukraine’s then commander in chief Gen. Valery Zaluzhnyi amidst rumours that Zelenskyy was unhappy with the war’s progress. 

Zelenskyy did replace Zaluzhnyi in early February, although not with Budanov. Stories in the media speculated that Zelenskyy was jealous of Zaluzhnyi’s popularity and feared him as a potential political rival in the future.  

There have also been reports that some of those threads were part of a Russian misinformation campaign directed at the Ukrainian president.  

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the country's army chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, pose for a photo in Kyiv.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and former commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces Valery Zaluzhnyi shake hands during a meeting in Kyiv on Feb. 8, 2024. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters)

One of the disputes between Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi that spilled into the public domain has been over mobilization, Ukrainian troops not only outgunned but out-manned by its much larger neighbour.  

Zelensky said in December that the military was asking for some 450,000 conscripts. Zaluzhnyi denied the ask.

Asked about the apparent rift, Budanov said there could hardly be personal differences between the men when one of them was “a direct subordinate to the other.” 

He also implied that Zelenskyy had made the right decision in replacing Zaluzhnyi. 

“If everything is good and everything is wonderful and everything is done correctly, then why are we in the situation we are in?” he said. 

Regardless of the spat’s perceived origins, it has underlined the more precarious place Ukraine finds itself in as it faces a third year of conflict.   

The slow drip arrival of artillery ammunition and other promised military aid from Western nations, including the United States, is an increasingly desperate problem for Ukraine as its troops run low on the means both to advance and to protect themselves.

On Sunday, Ukrainian Defence Minister Rustem Umerov said that 50 per cent of commitments from Western allies have not been delivered on time.



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