Photo by Oleksandr Chekmenev
This is a translation of an interview with the Chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine (GUR), Kyrylo Budanov, published by Forbes.ua on 22 February 2023. In this interview, he talks about Russian mobilization, Russia’s weapon production capabilities, his opinion on Bakhmut, not accidental arsons in Russia, and the near future of the war.
Original article in Ukrainian on:
Click here to access the interview on Forbes.ua
Authors: Borys Davydenko and Kateryna Reshchuk (Forbes.ua)
Translation by @VolodyaTretyak (Twitter)
(Interviewer): Russia is currently on the offensive along almost the entire eastern front. Is this the big offensive that has been talked about for the last two months, or should we expect something else from Russia in March?
(Budanov): The big Russian offensive they are aiming for is already underway. But it’s going on so well that not everyone even sees it – this is the quality of this offensive. They have a strategic objective – to reach the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk regions by March 31.
(I): Do you think this is the maximum they can announce now? The announcements are usually more ambitious than the real possibilities.
(B): I don’t think so. I know so. This is what they dream about, they will not be able to do it.
(I): Western media actively wrote that mass mobilization would begin in Russia in late January or early February. They predicted numbers of up to 500,000 people. Now it doesn’t look like it has started.
(B): Who told you that it hasn’t? It is hidden.
(I): Is it possible to recruit that many people in secret?
(B): In a country with a population of over 100 million, what’s the problem with recruiting 500,000?
(I): What do we know about mobilization in Russia now, since the numbers vary?
(B): During the first open wave of mobilization, they recruited just over 316,000. The question here is: if everything is fine in Russia and they have drafted another 316,000, then why continue the mobilization? It means that everything is not good. This leads us to a simple conclusion: how many casualties are there in the Russian Federation? This figure is sky-high.
(I): Out of these 316,000, how many are already at the front?
(B): More than 90% were immediately sent. No one trained them – they were sent straight to the front.
(I): No conditional reserve?
(B): A small percentage went to form new units, but the majority went to restore the units that suffered losses, they are all at the front.
(I): There is an assumption that we need to look very closely at the news about mobilization. If Russia succeeds in recruiting 300,000 or 500,000 people, the frontline will become too short for that many people on their side, and then we can expect an offensive on Kyiv. What do you think about this?
(B): This is questionable logic, I do not share this opinion. An offensive in one direction or another is not limited by the number of people you want or can deploy somewhere.
(I): But this increases Russia’s capabilities.
(B): We are in an open war. What is so surprising about this possibility? In addition to the possibility, there is also the reality. The reality is that they are aiming to reach the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk regions by March 31. You can feel the difference between taking Kyiv in three days and reaching these borders someday.
(I): Is there an understanding of how many people they can call up, not in terms of the number of people, but how many assault rifles, armored vehicles, tanks they can issue?
(B): There are enough assault rifles for any number of people, and there are not enough armored vehicles now, but this does not bother them at all. Many units are being formed from scratch. They are going without equipment, in Ural trucks and Kamaz trucks. They no longer have BMPs or armored personnel carriers. All the equipment is being removed from long-term storage, they have already removed more than 60%, leaving about 35% that can be quickly restored. The production is single, and it does not cover the needs.
(I): What about Medvedev’s statement about 800 tanks a year?
(B): They are not able to produce 800 tanks a year, not only in wartime but in their best years.
Photo by Oleksandr Chekmenev
(I): This is not the first time foreign media have published materials advising us to reduce our presence in Bakhmut to preserve our forces for a possible counteroffensive in the South. They say that the city’s importance is not as strategic as political.
(B): I would like to see such a proposal made to the President of France. To say that, “you have a problem, leave the city of Marseille, it is not so strategic”.
(I): Is there more political or military expediency in holding Bakhmut now?
(B): Can you imagine the US president being told: “Let’s temporarily surrender New York, that’s what we must do”?
(I): If we recall the Second World War, Stalin was told that he had to retreat from Kyiv. He also said: “How can you retreat from the mother of Russian cities?” We know where this led.
(B): If we follow your logic, it led to the victory of the Soviet Union.
(I): But 400,000 people were killed and captured in that operation.
(B): As a patriot and a military man, surrendering even a millimeter of the territory is a disaster. This is my personal logic. You can agree with it or not. From a military point of view, holding Bakhmut allows us to deter the Russians in that area and inflict catastrophic losses on them.
(I): Are we exhausting them in this way?
(B): We are exhausting them and defending our territory, which cannot be assessed in the context of whether it is advisable or inexpedient to leave.
(I): We are talking about redistributing forces, not just surrendering the city. Perhaps it would be more efficient to use people in other areas?
(B): I do not agree with this logic.
On the remnants of Russian weapons
(I): You mentioned earlier that Russia is significantly depleting its stockpile of equipment and shells, including 152-caliber ones. That they have about 30% of the total number of shells left. How can they go on the offensive with that amount of shells and such equipment?
(B): They can’t. That’s why not everyone even notices this “huge offensive”. As for the weapons stockpile, they are now setting up mass production of artillery shells. This once again confirms that there are no stockpiles of shells, there are not enough.
For two months now, the Russian groups operating in our country have been living in a mode of maximum ammunition saving. More or less normally, ammunition is now being used exclusively in Bakhmut and the Liman sector. They tried to storm Vuhledar several times and will continue to try, so we could add this location. In all other areas, ammunition is being saved.
(I): How many of them are produced in Russia now?
(B): They produce much less than they use.
(I): When and if they can deploy a production sufficient for artillery warfare?
(B): They will never be able to. Russia is not the Soviet Union. They have already felt and realized this, it is a fact.
(I): But a projectile is not a drone, no electronics import is needed.
(B): It’s not that easy, it requires a lot of production facilities that have been destroyed in 30 years. For 30 years, Russia, like many other post-Soviet countries, has been selling stockpiles.
(I): Do they have a chance to find these shells in North Korea?
(B): Theoretically, there is a possibility. Do they bring shells from there? There are no confirmed cases in North Korea. A test batch was brought in from Iran, and now they are trying to bring another batch, not a test batch, which is about 20,000 shells. This is nothing compared to the numbers that are being used.
(I): Our partners and we also have a shortage of these shells.
(B): Of course, we do. It is impossible to compare the defense industry of the Soviet Union, ours, and most Western countries with the capacities that existed during the Cold War.
(I): What does this mean? Will the war shift from artillery to other tactics?
(B): Everyone sees the transition to a different tactic in Bakhmut. Vuhledar was a vivid example of this. In Bakhmut, it’s just infantry coming in wave after wave. Their artillery is only supporting them, and there are very few armored vehicles. In Vuhledar, armored vehicles were used, but they were destroyed in the first hours, and everything turned into small arms fighting.
(I): Earlier you said that Russia had enough missiles for three or four attacks, and then it would have to fire from the assembly line. Has this moment come?
(B): There are small percentages of the total number left. Less is produced than they use in one salvo, and production is not keeping up. Russia is not the Soviet Union.
(I): You mentioned their conditional maximum of producing 50 missiles a month.
(B): Less. In total, they sometimes produce 20 or 22 Kalibr missiles per month. These are the ones that are launched from the sea. About 15, sometimes up to 20, are X-101 missiles. That is why the number of missiles in each salvo is decreasing. The intensity of the shelling is decreasing. Initially, massive rocket attacks were on Mondays, then once every eight days, and now once every ten days, two weeks. They are reducing the number of missiles and increasing the time interval.
(I): What prevents the Russians from increasing missile production?
(B): There is no capacity, it’s a bubble. If you have not done anything for 30 years, you cannot do what you want in one day, during the war and sanctions.
(I): Electronics imports from China increased by 500%, six times over the past year. There are components there that are needed to make missiles. Are we doing anything on our part, or can we do anything to prevent these components from reaching Russia?
(B): These are exclusively civilian goods and microcircuits that can have dual use. This is a problem. If you import a vacuum cleaner, it is a vacuum cleaner. Based on the realities in which Russia lives, they have to buy millions of such equipment and disassemble it into microchips.
This is a great shame even for Russian ideology. They have reached the point where they buy washing machines and vacuum cleaners and disassemble them into microchips that they will then insert into missiles.
(I): The media announced the construction of an Iranian-Russian plant to produce Shaheds in Tatarstan.
(B): Who announced it?
(I): The Financial Times, the New York Times, reputable media.
(B): If I start criticizing reputable media, I will be criticized myself. I have nothing to say. Maybe I just don’t know the answer.
(I): Do you have any such information now?
(B): I don’t have any confirmed information that a “shahed” has been assembled in Tatarstan and exists somewhere. Perhaps I just haven’t seen it yet.
On the GUR’s information policy
(I): In an interview, you said that you use many sources to draw your conclusions. Can you rank the top five sources used by Ukrainian intelligence in the twenty-first century?
(B): This is standard. Like any special service in the world, they work in much the same way. These are technical means of intelligence, technical penetration, penetration into cyberspace, phones, and computers. But the most important thing is agent work. Only agent work can provide answers to complex questions.
(I): Your deputy said they have sources among oligarchs, business people, and Putin’s inner circle. If we have them, why do we need to talk about them?
(B): Did he mention any names or anything that might lead to an answer? Russia has more than 100 oligarchs with different degrees of closeness. Some are close to Patrushev, some are close to Bortnikov, some are close to the conditional president, some are close to Kiriyenko. So who are we talking about?
(I): Is this our information tactic?
(B): Let them check all 100 of them (laughs). Do you know what they will find? I will give a real answer to the question.
2.5 years ago, we made a controlled leak on one issue, outlining the circle where such information could have come from. Do you know what the reaction of the Russians was? They began to scrutinize everyone who fell into this circle. They narrowed it down to about 30 people. After that, they concluded that one of these 30 people had to be there. They began to check everyone with polygraphs and look for family ties.
As a result, all 30 people were selected-a certain number were fired, and a certain number went to jail. Because each of them had family ties that led them to Ukraine, and it so happened that our countries are closely connected. If they follow the same logic, the whole world will applaud.
(I): Russia seems to be waging this war online, almost announcing military action. It seems that even Russia has never fought like this before.
(B): This is information warfare. What has Russia been doing all this time? Even take the example of Bakhmut. If you read the official sources of the Russian Federation, not to mention the unofficial ones, they have taken it ten times since June. It’s February, and they say: just a little more.
(I): It looks strange, announcing their offensives.
(B): If we’re talking about the other side, we have to remember that there is no limit to Russian stupidity. In addition, don’t forget that although Russia is the very vertically oriented structure, it can hardly be called a state. It still has two towers. Two towers of the Kremlin clash with each other and who will win is announced in advance.
(I): Is it the FSB and the military?
(B): It’s not just the FSB and the military. Everyone there is divided into two towers. Conditional hawks and conditional liberals, both of which are very conditional. They care more about money than about what they claim.
About fires and explosions in Russia
(I): At the end of last year, the OSINT agency Molfar calculated that in November-December 2022 alone, the statistics of fires and major incidents in Russia doubled. How much of this are coincidence and how much is a consequence of the war?
(B): Much of this is not a coincidence. Something is always burning. Signaling equipment on the railroads burns several times a day, on different highways constantly for two or three hours, sometimes for five or six hours, and traffic is suspended along the entire section. It is clear that it is burning for a reason.
(I): Are Ukrainians helping in Russia?
(B): Why only Ukrainians? I would say this: money make wonders.
Photo by Oleksandr Chekmenev
On the end of the war: the score is 1:1, and the minute is 70
(I): In Ukraine, you have a reputation as the main and good prognosticator. A person whose predictions come true more often than not.
(B): I am not a prognosticator and have never been one. We make conclusions, not forecasts. They are different things.
(I): What are your conclusions about the fighting by the end of spring and by the end of the year?
(B): Nothing has changed, and there will be decisive battles from mid to late spring.
(I): Will they decide the fate of the war?
(B): Yes, this is a turning point.
(I): If you apply a football analogy to the 12 months of the great war. What is the score, and what is the minute of the match?
(B): The score is 1-1, and the minute is 70. This is a subjective vision.
(I): Three reasons why we managed to survive:
(B): If I say God is with us, will you accept the answer? [Laughs, hinting at the Russian propaganda narrative] The second is that we are defending our land, which helps. It’s easier to play on your field. The third reason is that the entire civilized world is fighting with us. We are not alone.
(I): And if we take the three biggest victories and defeats?
(B): I will speak subjectively. The first major defeat was Ukraine’s temporary defeat in the area of Sievierodonetsk. The second is the first period of the war, when the line was broken in the area of Volnovakha. And the third, and this will be a general answer, is that we allowed the temporary occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in 2014. These are our three biggest failures, but they are all correctable.
(I): And what about victories?
(B): The victories are the pushing back of the enemy from the Kyiv direction, the actions in the Kharkiv direction and the regaining of control over the city of Kherson.
(I): Let’s talk about the future. Let’s imagine that in the near future we will liberate the de-occupied territories, manage to liberate Crimea, and reach the border with Russia. Will we go further?
(B): This is a question exclusively for the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, not for me. In my vision, we must create conditions for a security zone around our border. There are many ways to achieve this. For example, a 100-kilometer zone is justified, but 40 kilometers will be more or less normal.
So that you understand my logic correctly. Whether we should go further is not a question for me, but creating a security zone around the border is a necessity. There are many options to achieve this goal.
(I): What should this zone look like?
(B): A demilitarized zone, without any weapons, with normal control. So that we always have time to respond.
(I): We have reached the borders of 1991, and there is a feeling in society that this is the end of the war. But this is not a fact. What will make Russia end the war?
(B): You’re right, it may or may not mean the end. It is possible to transfer the war to a completely different format. It is possible to move to a permanent defense operation. A good example is Israel, which lives in a constant state of war, conducting a defense operation along its borders. Most likely, this will lead us to solve internal problems in the previously occupied territories, which is a huge set of issues.
(I): What can end the war? What are the conditions for this on both sides?
(B): We have only one condition – to reach the administrative borders of 1991, and we will decide everything else later.
(I): It’s a simplistic question, but Ukraine is waiting for an answer. When will the war end?
(B): I can only answer you when it ends. For us, it will end with the first phase – reaching the administrative border. But since we’ve discussed how it’s 1:1 and the 70th minute of the match, make a timing parallel.