Russia Plotting To Assassinate Prigozhin, Ukraine’s Spy Boss Tells Us

In a wide-ranging interview, Budanov says Wagner is no longer a threat in Ukraine and what would’ve happened if Prigozhin went all the way.

byHoward Altman|
Photo by Yurii Stefanyak/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images


Early this morning, just days after Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) leader launched, then aborted a mutiny against Moscow, The War Zone caught up with the head of the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR) for his assessment of the situation and more.

Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, in his second interview with us since November, told The War Zone when Ukraine became aware of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny operation and how it affected operations on the battlefield. Budanov disclosed there is an ongoing assassination plot against the former close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and that Wagner will no longer be a threat in Ukraine. Budanov also talked about Putin’s future in the wake of Prigozhin’s march towards Moscow. And of course he discussed a host of other issues in a teleconference meeting from his office in Kyiv. Budanov spoke through a translator. This conversation has been very slightly edited for clarity:

TWZ: What was the mood when you first heard Prigozhin was marching on Moscow?

KB: The mood was very good because any actions that go towards the destabilization inside Russia are beneficial for Ukraine. That is why the mood was good.

TWZ: At any point were you aware that Prigozhin was plotting a mutiny? Had you been in touch with him? There was some speculation about that.

KB: So rumors are rumors and I won’t be doing any comment about that. If the question is did we know about the plans to conduct such actions? Yes, I can confirm that we knew that there was an intent to do something similar. And we knew about it for quite a while.

TWZ: How did you know?

KB: From our HUMINT (human intelligence) sources.

Budanov talking to us from his office in Kyiv. Zoom Interview Screencap

TWZ: How did Prigozhin’s incursion into Russia affect Russian military operations in Ukraine as it was unfolding?

KB: Due to the fact that all of those developments were continuing for a very short period of time, we cannot speak of any serious impact those actions had. But at the same time, there has been some damage done to the Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation. The second point is we are not expecting an emergence of PMC Wagner in Ukraine as a separate entity fulfilling its own operations. And I believe that factor is quite important for us. Because regretfully we have to admit that Private Military Company Wagner showed themselves as quite a powerful fighting force. Unlike the regular Russian military units. And also we need to admit that unlike the Russian Armed Forces again they are able to fight in a right way properly and they're ready to take sacrifices in order to achieve the task.

Prigozhin during an address while at the Russia's seized Southern Military District headquarters.

TWZ: You mentioned damage to the Russian Aerospace forces, can you go into more detail?

KB: If I remember it right, there were eight aircraft completely down -  both rotary wing and fixed wing. Some of them were attack helicopters. And also there was one airborne command post - also called a transmitter [IL-22M radio relay] aircraft that was downed. Those eight aircraft were completely destroyed. But there were others which managed to return to their home bases but have taken certain damage.

TWZ: Do you know the status of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, head of the Russian Aerospace Forces and erstwhile Prigozhin ally? Has he been arrested?

KB: Currently, we don't have the complete knowledge of what's going on. I cannot say directly what happened to him personally. There was unconfirmed information that he was taken into custody on Saturday, the very day when Prigozhin’s actions started. But we were yet unable to confirm or disprove that information.

TWZ: Do you know if Surovikin was providing information to Prigozhin as he was planning his mutiny, as The New York Times reported?

KB: I will refrain from answering this question.

TWZ: How badly has this incident damaged Russia’s ability to conduct the war? Why?

KB: We're actually going back to the point I made at the beginning of our conversation that any destabilization inside the Russian Federation is beneficial for Ukraine. The main consequence that most likely you won't see anymore PMC Wagner as a separate unit. And in truth, they could have created quite significant problems for us.

TWZ: Do you see Prigozhin creating any problems for Ukraine while he is in Belarus? Are you worried about that? (Yesterday, Polish officials announced they were beefing up fortifications out of concern about Prigozhin and Wagner).

KB: Nyet. No. 

TWZ: Why?

KB: Because a massive restationing of the PMC to Belarus is not planned. And because the hub that they're creating in Belarus is for logistic purposes. Also they will have some office premises and a recruiting center. And that hub is being created for Wagner operations overseas, mostly in Africa.

TWZ: So those operations overseas will continue?

KB: Yes, their operations overseas are continuing mostly in Africa. And what is going to happen next is that the majority of personnel which was previously engaged in fighting in Ukraine will be step-by-step moved to Africa to build up operations there.

TWZ: How many troops does Prigozhin have in Belarus right now?

KB: No one, just a few people from his forward-ranking group.

TWZ: Do you think he will be assassinated by Putin?

KB: We are aware that the FSB was charged with a task to assassinate him. Will they be successful in doing that? We'll see with time. So in any case, all of such potential assassination attempts will not be fast. It will take them some time to have the proper approaches and to reach the stage when they're ready to add a huge operation. But once again, I'd like to underline that it's a big open question. Would they be successful in fulfilling that? Will they dare to to execute that order?

TWZ: Back in November, you told me that you didn’t think Putin would survive the war. Has this situation changed your thinking at all? Does he survive?

KB: Had Mr. Prigozhin fulfilled his initial plan, Russia would have been divided into at least two parts by now but as he didn't, we're still about to see. Because had Prigozhin entered an empty Kremlin that day, he would have shown to the public that the Kremlin is empty. There are no ministers. There are no real high-ranking officials there. They all have escaped, and he would demonstrate that there's no authority in power currently in Russia. But on the other hand, some officials from St. Petersburg or elsewhere would start claiming that they're the legitimate power which makes a situation of two powers in the country, which immediately would be split.

But given the fact that they've managed to come to an agreement, which they did, it bought some time for the Russian leadership, for the Russian authorities. But still, their stance as all-controlling a pillar of power was greatly undermined by Prigozhin’s actions and it will never be the same again.

TWZ: Will Putin be overthrown?

KB: They will demonstrate the change of power in more or less a legal way. The precise way how it will happen, we're about to see.

TWZ: I want to shift to the counteroffensive. How is that going from your point of view?

KB: I am not authorized to comment on the activities of the General Staff whose responsibility this counter offensive is. That is why I ask to be excused, I will not be answering this question. I can say in general, that it's ongoing. We have certain successes, but it's yet too soon to speak of any results.

Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine's Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR), gave us his take on Saturday's mutiny attempt by Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. (Zoom screencap)

TWZ: I want to follow up on two responses you gave me to questions I asked you in November. One was about retaking Crimea sometime this year and the other was about returning to the 1991 borders by this year. Do you still hold to those projections?

KB: Our position is unchanged in that we will reach the administrative borders of Ukraine as of 1991 anyway.

TWZ: This year?

KB: So we'll do everything possible to make it this year.

TWZ: But that’s not a guarantee, right? Obviously the Russians have a lot to say about this.

KB: In such issues it is only God who can provide such guarantees.

TWZ: Are you concerned the U.S. will cut off the supply of aid to Ukraine if the counteroffensive is not successful?

KB: I have no concerns about that. Because I am sure that Ukraine is to get a certain degree of success in this counter offensive operation.

TWZ: Do you still believe the Russians are going to create a disaster at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant?

KB: Russia on the technical side has set everything ready for orchestration of a technological disaster on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. They’ve prepared everything necessary to create an artificial technological, man-made disaster. The part of the station - which if the decision is taken - they are most likely to blow up, is the artificial pond on the territory of the station that ensures cooling. So what they're about to do is to damage a link in the system, which will subsequently cause this technological disaster situation which no one will be able to stop or mitigate. Because search and rescue operations in a combat zone are impossible.

TWZ: Will they carry through on that?

KB: They are completely ready for it.

TWZ: Let’s talk about the attacks by so-called anti-Putin Russian partisan groups inside Russia. In May one of your staff said there was a level of cooperation with those groups. Are you cooperating at all with those forces?

KB: Being a special service, it's understood that we are familiar with multiple organizations across the world. But the fighting of Russian volunteers against the Russian regime on the territory of the Russian Federation is exclusively a Russian internal issue.

TWZ: Are you helping them in any way?

KB: We just know them, that’s it.

TWZ: So there’s no cooperation?

KB: Our cooperation, if there is some, it doesn't step beyond their assistance to us In defense of Ukraine on the territory of Ukraine. Everything they do outside Ukraine in the Russian Federation is none of our business.

TWZ: The leak of classified documents included information that the U.S. had to talk you out of attacking Moscow on the anniversary of the all-out invasion. Did that happen?

KB: These are your leaks. Why are you asking me?

TWZ: Given those leaks, are you concerned about sharing secrets with the U.S.?

KB: I’m not the person to comment about rumors or some leaks of unknown sources.

TWZ: Any concern about the U.S. ability to keep secrets?

KB: I have no concerns. The U.S. is a reliable partner of Ukraine and likewise Ukraine is a reliable partner of the United States of America.

TWZ: What else can the U.S. provide Ukraine to help?

KB: It's nothing new. We're looking forward to intensification and enlargement and scale of arms provision to Ukraine.

TWZ: When do you anticipate pilot training on F-16s will begin?

KB: Look, the F-16 question is a long-term question. What I'm asking about is stuff that is needed here. And now. It's armored combat vehicles, tanks, long-range artillery, long-range missile systems. There's nothing new in that list.

TWZ: And do you know when the pilot training might start? Do you have any sense of that?

KB: Excuse me, I just don't possess that information. They might have already started. I’m not the unit operating F-16s, I have no F-16s, so I don’t know.

TWZ: The last time we talked, you said that Russia was on the verge of receiving short-range ballistic missiles from Iran as well as more drones. Is that still the case?

KB: As of today, there are no Iranian ballistic missiles in Russia or in Ukraine. Speaking of drones, they are used at large scale.

TWZ: Do you anticipate Russia getting more drones from Iran?

KB: New batches of drones from Iran are coming constantly to the Russian Federation.

TWZ: How many?

KB: Usually one batch is 50 to 70 drone per time. And it happens quite regularly, once every two weeks, sometimes every three weeks.

TWZ: Do the Russians have enough missiles to continue barrages against Ukraine?

KB: As you see from the recent strikes, they've reduced the numbers of missiles they're using first strike each time. So the answer is no. They are no longer able to conduct the same attacks which they did last fall. So if you excuse us, we have to go.

TWZ: Thank you very much as always.

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