Ukraine’s Intel Chief On How The War Ends, Putin’s Nuclear Threats, Iranian Drones, And More

In a wide-ranging interview with The War Zone, Ukrainian Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov answers our questions about the war and where it’s headed.

byHoward Altman|
Ukraine Intelligence Chief
Teleconference Screencap


Friday morning, The War Zone caught up with Ukrainian Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of that nation’s Defense Intelligence directorate for a wide-ranging hour-long discussion about when and how the war will end, whether the Russians will use nuclear weapons, how the fight to retake Kherson City is going, when Ukraine will attempt to retake Crimea and much, much more.

The questions and answers have in some cases been slightly edited for clarity.

TWZ: How long will it take Ukraine to recapture Kherson City?

KB: Most likely the seizure operation of Kherson will last until the end of the next month.

TWZ: How have the Russians fortified the city and who do they have fighting there?

KB: The most trained and most capable Russian units are currently in Kherson. A large share of them are from airborne troops of the Russian Federation, Russian special operation forces and the naval infantry, so the most capable units that Russia has. Those units form the backbone of the grouping and it's being strengthened by the mobilized personnel also.

TWZ: How many Russian forces are in Kherson right now?

KB: So the combat component -  the units that can pose any danger to us with our operation - is about 40,000. So it's the grouping. Kherson [City] is in the middle of that grouping. Those are troops in Kherson and also just in areas of the western bank [of the Dnipro RIver] and also troops that support actions of the western bank but that are stationed on the eastern bank. 

TWZ: That sounds like it will be a bloody fight.

KB: We're trying to alleviate that to the extent that we're able to but it won't go through without a fight.

TWZ: Why not just encircle the city and isolate the troops there?

KB: That's exactly what we're trying to do. But they're opposing outwardly. They're trying to obstruct our movement forward, and you should understand that fighting is going on every day.

TWZ: You’ve talked about the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant Dam being mined in April. Do you really think the Russians will blow that up?

KB: In our assessment, if such a decision is taken, they will only blow up the road that goes over the dam to make it impossible to use for our vehicles and also the water locks of the dam which will cause only a partial ruination of the facility.

The Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant Dam in Kherson City. (Ukraine military photo)

TWZ: If they do that, will it impede your ability to retake Kherson?

KB: No. This might happen when we take Kherson and if they decide to withdraw. After withdrawal from the west bank, they might turn to doing it to obstruct our advancement to the east bank.

TWZ: As you were planning out the counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson, did you have tabletop exercises with U.S. officials?

KB: This question is not a question to me. It's a question to the commander of the armed forces of Ukraine and the general staff and I'm not authorized to respond to that.

TWZ: Let’s turn to Belarus. Ukraine just bolstered troops along its northern border. Can you provide any further details about why and how concerned are you about a Russian attempt to attack perhaps not Kyiv, but western Ukraine to cut off supplies pouring in from allies?

KB: Cutting off those supply lines from the west is a strategic goal. And I could say a cherished dream of the Russian Federation. Speaking of Russian military activities in Belarus, the presence of the Russian military in Belarus currently is not that high. Only about 4,300 servicemen are there. And they are very limited. That grouping is very limited in heavy weapon systems and the majority - about 80% of the grouping - are mobilized personnel. So summarizing the abovementioned, I can say that in the current stage there is not a threat of invasion from Belarus. But that situation could change very fast when Russia loses Kherson. That capable grouping in Kherson after the withdrawal from Kherson will partially be relocated to the Zaporizhzhia direction but part of them might move northwards to Belarus and create a threat there. So we have to be cautious about it.

TWZ: Is that why Ukraine shifted troops north to the border to prevent that?

KB: Naturally of course, because we need to get ready for any possible actions of the Russian Federation.

TWZ: How big a strain does that put on Ukraine, given the counteroffensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts?

KB: We have enough forces for the defense of our state. And as you see we have no other options but to do that, and as you see, we're still continuing offensive operations in other directions.

TWZ: Let me ask you about the Kerch Bridge. Who attacked it?

KB: So I've already answered this question also to your colleagues [in the media]. And when they asked me about it, I asked them back. Why is that? Why did they think that Ukraine is the only possible actor that could do that? There were multiple cases before when the Russians have blown out their own constructions and buildings, and just to unbind their hands for doing something else.

Explosion causes fire at the Kerch bridge in the Kerch Strait, Crimea on Oct. 8. (Photo by Vera Katkova/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

TWZ: So do you deny any Ukrainian involvement in that attack?

KB: I'm not confirming or disproving. We're just having a discussion.

TWZ: What about the attacks on the Saki Air Base in Crimea? Did Ukraine have anything to do with that and how did you carry that out if you did?

KB: Look, Ukraine has the right to cause the military defeat to come to that attacker. We're striving for victory over the enemy. That victory can come in the course of engagement of adversary targets and in the final stage, this victory is only possible when we reached the boundaries of 1991. That's how it's happened.

TWZ: But can you give me more details about how the Saki Air Base was attacked? What kind of a weapon was used?

KB: Regretfully, I cannot comment on all the details of these events.

TWZ: In terms of Crimea, when do you think Ukraine might be launching an offensive there and how long do you think it would take to take Crimea back?

KB: So this is only happening by military force and that will happen next year.

TWZ: Roughly when next year?

KB: I'll refrain from that, excuse me.

TWZ: There's been a number of attacks in the Russian Belgorod region. Is that something that Ukraine is carrying out?

KB: It's another question that I cannot provide you with an answer to.

TWZ: Is there any thought about using any of the American-supplied weapons to attack in Belgorod or elsewhere in Russia?

KB: I can assure you that none of the weapon systems provided to us from the West were used, are being used or most likely won't be used in attacks anywhere but on the territory of Ukraine. Those weapons systems were provided to Ukraine as aid in order to regain its territorial integrity. That is why those weapon systems are used exclusively on the territory of Ukraine.

TWZ: Was the wave of missile and drone attacks that launched on Oct. 10 planned before the Kerch Bridge attack?

KB: Yes, we possess information and evidence that that attack was pre-planned before the 10th of October and before the Kerch Bridge explosion they just used the Kerch Bridge explosion as a pretext, as justification for those massive strikes at Ukraine. But as I say it was pre-planned long before all of that.

A Ukrainian man tries to survive in his house destroyed by the missile attack after Russia's latest shelling across Ukraine on Oct.11. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

TWZ: These attacks were designed largely to take out your power infrastructure. How is Ukraine going to cope with providing power as Russia continues to attack those facilities?

KB: Mobile teams of engineers and electricians are working 24/7 these days to restore the infrastructure. Yes, there has been some damage done but it's not critical.

TWZ: How is the mobilization of so many untrained and poorly supplied troops affecting the battle from your point of view?

KB: It doesn't have a significant influence. We have to give them credit that they've managed to mobilize about 220,000 troops. But you were right to say that they're poorly trained and poorly equipped. That is why it has no significant influence.

TWZ: They’re not going to slow you down just because they are there?

KB: They're just throwing cannon fodder at us but in modern warfare that doesn't have a lot of impact and decisive meaning for the war.

TWZ: Why are the Russians investing so much in attacking Bakhmut?

KB: Bakhmut is just their desire that they want to achieve for eight months now. From the military standpoint, Bakhmut has a very favorable position because it opens further routes to such towns as Sloviansk [about 20 miles to the northwest], Kramatorsk [about five miles south of Sloviansk] and Chasiv Yar [about five miles southwest of Bahkmut].

TWZ: Can you tell me how many troop losses there have been on the Ukrainian and Russian sides?

KB: We're not calculating and we're not responsible for registering the losses on the Ukrainian side. It's not in the confidence of the Defense Intelligence. But for the adversary, I can provide you data. On the personnel, it's 65,765 [killed in action], 2,637 tanks, 5,379 armored combat vehicles, artillery systems along with multiple launch rocket systems slightly more than 2,000, about 250 helicopters and about 1,400 unmanned aerial vehicles and also about 16 ships and boats. 

TWZ: How much difference is mud playing in current combat operations?

KB: It's a problematic issue. At a stage, it played in our favor but it also played against us. For example, currently, for wheeled equipment, the terrain is not passable. And you cannot even move tracked vehicles across the terrain for a few days right after the rain. That is why currently it is both sides that are unable to conduct active actions.

TWZ: Can you talk about the Kharkiv counteroffensive? Is that slowing down?

KB: So in the Kharkiv direction, we're standing actually at the border with Russian Federation and we're not moving into the territory of the Russian Federation.

TWZ: Vladimir Putin has made several threats about the use of nuclear weapons. And then there is this narrative out of Moscow that Ukraine is developing a dirty bomb [a device with a conventional explosive designed to disburse radioactive material]. First of all, do you think Putin will order a nuclear strike on Ukraine?

KB:  Look, let's go step by step. First, on the potential usage, the theoretical potential usage of nuclear weapons by Russia against us, theoretically that is possible. Because Russia is a terrorist state with a nuclear mace. But that is just a potential possibility. We're not observing any preparations for a nuclear strike at Ukraine. Speaking of lies spread by the Russian Federation that Ukraine allegedly is preparing a dirty bomb, Ukraine has never in its history produced such devices. It has never planned, it's not planning and it's not going to plan to do anything like that. Unlike the Russian Federation, who is, as I said before, a terrorist state and they're likely to do anything.

TWZ: So why is Russia continuing to spread a story about Ukraine preparing to use a dirty bomb?

KB: They want to force us into peace talks and they want to threaten the rest of the world so they would apply pressure to us to make a seat at the table of negotiations with Russia.

TWZ: How much of a difference has Sergei Surovikin, the new commander of the Russian Army in Ukraine, made to the fight?

KB: There hasn't been any changes made by this appointment because nothing in Russia is able to fix the very bad state, the very bad position in which Russia currently is in. But contrary to that, there should be someone responsible in Russia for all the military defeats they're taking and they're going to take and as they lose Kherson, this person will be the one to blame.

TWZ: Can you talk about any Ukrainian weapons innovations that are making a difference on the battlefield?

KB: Ukraine currently is producing all the weapons it's able to produce and all those weapons are used. That is why it's a very broad question. For example, there are large numbers of Ukrainian drones, of Ukrainian production, that are currently used on the front line.

TWZ: Drilling down a bit on the drones, can you talk about their capabilities?

KB: Of course, I won't be talking about the new systems and the older systems such as the PD-1 or Leleka-100 are well known and their technical features are public.

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TWZ: Is Ukraine working on its own short-range ballistic missile systems

KB: I won’t be able to comment on this.

TWZ: How big of a difference have the Iranian drones used by Russia made? Which Iranian drones are making the biggest impact and how are you countering them?

KB: The massive application of loitering munitions - kamikaze drones - against civilian infrastructure and critical infrastructure sites is typical terrorism. As an example, there was a case when they were targeting an energy infrastructure site but in parallel to that they engaged a residential building on the way and as a result of that, a whole entrance to the building with few floors above it collapsed which led to deaths of women and children. The main types of drones are the Shahed-136 and Mohajer-6.

TWZ: Which of those are the most effective, from the Russian point of view?

KB: The Shaheds, because they're launching them in large quantities and eventually we downed about 70% of those, but 30% are reaching their targets.

TWZ: Can you talk about how you’re downing them?

KB: With all available air defense systems that we have currently and also by electronic warfare.

TWZ: Can you provide more details about what kinds of electronic warfare measures you are using?

KB: Using the chance, the other thing I'd like to say is that we're lacking those systems. So we need more, both of the electronic warfare systems and our air defense systems because the systems that we have, taken together with the systems that are incoming, are still not enough to counter the numbers of air targets that we have to count.

TWZ: Speaking about air defense systems, is Ukraine running low on munitions for those systems given how many have been expended against drones and missiles?

KB: Of course, we are using a lot of those systems. But we're resupplying and also thanks to the assistance of your nation, that is happening. But I'd like to underline once again we need more of these systems.  So the air defense and electronic warfare and of course munitions for them, firstly, to provide protection to peaceful cities and the civilian population living there, and the infrastructure that supports them.

TWZ: Are the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missiles Systems, or NASAMS, actually being used in Ukraine right now?

KB: Of course, all the systems that were supplied to us by our allies we are using.

TWZ: But are the NASAMS being used?

KB: As I just said, everything that we've received, we're using immediately.

TWZ: Do the Russians have their own ability to develop and produce loitering munitions?

KB: Yes, at the very beginning of the conflict on the 24th of February and so forth, there were a few cases recorded of the application of a Russian loitering munition called Kub. And also recently there was a case when the creation of another system called Lancet was detected. But those uses [aren't massive] because critical Russian defense industry is unable to secure the production of those weapon systems in enough quantities.

TWZ: How concerned are you about the Iranian short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) - Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar SRBMs capable of striking targets at distances of between 186 and 435 miles - that are coming to Russia? And when do you think those will get there?

KB: I believe that likely that next month we'll see them used here.

TWZ: And how concerned are you about that threat?

KB: It's a serious threat because Iranian missiles, unlike Russian ones, are quite high precision, very high speed and those features have been battle proven.

TWZ: What can you do about that?

KB: All we can rely on is the brilliant work of our air defense troops. And on hopes that our allies will provide us more of those air defense systems to provide coverage.

TWZ: Are you getting any useful help at all from Israelis to defend against Iranian drones or missiles?

KB: I don't have an answer to that question.

TWZ: Do you think the Russians will really shoot down commercial satellites that are going over Ukraine?

KB: As I said Russia is a terrorist state and its activities are no different from any terroristic activities out there.

TWZ: Is it possible? Do you believe it will happen?

KB: Yes it is possible.

TWZ: Do you believe that they will?

KB: As I said, you can anticipate anything from a terrorist.

TWZ: How important is the SpaceX Starlink system, supplied to Ukraine by Elon Musk’s SpaceX since the first days of the Russian invasion?

KB: We're using the Starlink system. They have made life a lot easier on the front lines and we're gladly using them and we're grateful for them.

TWZ: Can you operate without Starlink?

KB: We have the communications systems without Starlink. But the availability of Starlink makes life easier for the units on the front line.

TWZ: Do you believe Starlink will continue to operate in Ukraine?

KB: We hope for that very much and we see no reasons why it should stop.

TWZ: Are you aware of former Afghan troops fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Russia?

KB: We had confirmed information that there are mercenaries fighting for Russia from Afghanistan, from Syria and a few other countries but it doesn't have any strategic impact or meaning.

TWZ: Are you concerned about efforts by Iran and Russia to recruit more former Afghan troops, especially former Afghan Special Operations Forces (SOF)?

KB: You know that in this situation we are in, and considering the numbers of enemy troops that we're dealing with daily, the presence of 100 or 200 of those mercenaries - whatever the training is from anywhere in the world - is irrelevant.

TWZ: What about if it is in the thousands? We were told that Russia and Iran are trying to recruit as many as 5,000 former Afghan SOF troops.

KB: The Russian grouping [in Ukraine] is over 170,000 troops and they’ve mobilized another 220,000. I don't believe that any country across the world is able to provide a quantity of mercenaries that can be somehow compared to this armada we're facing.

TWZ: How does this end? What does victory look like for Ukraine?

KB: It's very simple. At the first stage, we'll reach our borders of 1991 [when Ukraine gained its independence from Russia] And we'll consider that a good sign and a good opportunity to finish the war. 

TWZ: When do you think that will happen? When do you think you’ll be able to restore the 1991 borders?

KB: Next year.

TWZ: Roughly what time next year?

KB: Let's not go into the military planning here.

TWZ: Will Vladimir Putin survive? And who could replace him?

KB: It's unlikely that he survives it. And currently, there's active discussions happening in Russia about who'd be there to replace him.

TWZ: Can you provide some names of who might replace him and are they any better than Putin?

KB: I’ll refrain from that yet.

TWZ: Back in November when I first met you, and you laid out pretty much how Russia would attack, you are ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. How difficult was it to convince your leadership that Russia was going to attack?

KB: I'll provide you with the following answer due to the fact that today it's the ninth month of this war since its beginning and Ukraine is still standing. It means we have been successful doing that.

TWZ: What is the sentiment of the Russian people in terms of support for this war? How long will the Russian people support this war? And is there any real resistance in Russia?

KB: The Russian Federation population will continue to support the government and its actions until the very defeat of the Russian Federation. And when Russia loses they will immediately start saying that they have nothing to do with this [and] that their leaders were wrong. 

TWZ: Do you think that there's any real chance that there'll be an effort to overthrow Putin?

KB: Not now, but as soon as Russia suffers defeat, this will happen really fast.

TWZ: And then what?

KB: Then the Russian Federation will change its form.

TWZ: Do you think that there's anybody behind Putin that's going to be any better in terms of Ukraine’s future and really the future with the West?

KB: I don't believe Russians at all. I don't believe that there's any good person behind him but whoever comes to power will surely blame Putin for all the bad that was done.

TWZ: The midterm election are coming up in the U.S. on Nov. 8.  Are you concerned that the flow of support for Ukraine might get cut off or slow down if the Republicans take control of Congress, as some have suggested?

KB: I very much hope that after elections in the U.S. that the support that is coming to Ukraine from the U.S. will only grow. And excuse me, we are running out of time. Thank you for this interview and for the chance to thank the U.S. and also the wide world for the assistance that is providing to Ukraine.

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