Aid to Ukraine is frozen in US Congress, and Kyiv could be dealing with a Trump presidency more sympathetic to Moscow. But Ukraine’s spy chief isn’t losing any sleep over the US.
Trump “is an experienced person. He has fallen many times and gotten back up again. And this is a very serious trait,” Budanov said of the former president who has made no secret of his desire to cut US support for Ukraine and whose allies in Congress are opposing efforts to authorize more aid.
In a wide-ranging interview, the military spy chief made clear Ukraine’s desperate need for more ammunition and weapons to hold back Russian assaults, even as he dismissed the risk of the US leaving Ukraine out in the cold.
“We are expecting a positive decision anyway,” Budanov said of the US debate over aid, “To say that [Trump] and the Republican Party are lovers of the Russian Federation is complete nonsense.”
Trump boasted this month on social media that he would rather trust Putin over some American intelligence officers, and famously backed the Russian leader during his presidency.
As head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, whose strength lies in intelligence-gathering and secretive special forces raids, Budanov has gained a reputation as being a man of few words but one who delivers results.
His agency has claimed notable successes, including raids on the Russian-occupied Crimea and attacks on Russian airfields, inflicting embarrassing wounds on the Kremlin.
Earlier in his career, Budanov fought and was injured on the front lines in eastern Ukraine, shortly after Russia first invaded its southern neighbor in 2014.
A figure of ire for the Kremlin, Budanov has been the target of Russian assassination at least 10 times in his career, the Ukrainians say. Late last year, they may have got close to him. His wife was hospitalized with apparent heavy metals poisoning, according to Ukrainian and western officials, in an attack that many suspected to be Russia’s doing.
Known to have strong ties with President Zelensky, the 38-year-old is seen to represent a new generation of military leaders.
At the same time, his utterances, and carefully cultivated public profile, have attracted some criticism. An enigmatic video appearance ahead of the largely stalled counteroffensive is seen now as one of several messages from Ukrainian officials that served to raise expectations too high about what Ukraine’s armed forces could achieve.
With rumors swirling that Zelensky could soon sack Valeriy Zaluzhny, the popular commander-in-chief of the army, Budanov is seen as a possible replacement. Budanov would not be drawn on the reports, saying “I personally have no conflict with anyone.”
Amid fierce Russian assaults along Ukraine’s frontlines, ammunition shortages and exhausted troops, Ukraine’s spy chief has one clear priority: more Western support.
Artillery systems – howitzers – were top of the list, with Ukraine needing a “sharp increase” in the number of guns, Budanov said, regardless of their age and type, as years of fighting take their toll on Ukraine’s long-range cannons.
Ammunition is vital too, he said, as “shells are one of the most decisive factors in this war.”
“Not so much the quality as the quantity,” he added. Ukraine has never managed to outgun Russian firepower, even after Moscow turned to North Korea to keep its ammunition flowing.
But Ukraine is holding its own in the air above the frontlines, the spy chief said. With Russia continually learning from its combat experiences, the trend is for even greater use of unmanned drones on and above Ukraine’s battlefields.
“It is precisely in unmanned systems that we are more or less equal,” Budanov said. Ukrainian social media is bursting with footage from frontline troops showing drones spying on, attacking and even capturing Russian troops, although Moscow uses many of the same tactics.
Kyiv has also stepped up long-range attacks on targets inside Russia, with explosions reported at infrastructure sites outside major cities far from the Ukrainian border. Russian authorities claimed to have foiled dozens of Ukrainian drone and missile attacks since the new year.
But as Ukraine’s long-held hopes for F-16 jets come to fruition – with Kyiv’s pilots already training on the aircraft – Budanov echoed Ukraine’s newest request.
He wants to see ground-attack aircraft like the American A-10 in Ukrainian hands. “This is what can really help inflict a military defeat” on Russia, he said of the aging aircraft.
Although decades old, the jet – famous for its prowess against Iraqi armor in the first Gulf War – is still lauded by its pilots and US troops, even as US Congress has looked to ax it from the US Air Force’s arsenal.
New jets may be a long shot with aid to Ukraine entangled as part of a greater compromise on US immigration policy, which has been opposed by Trump and his allies in Congress.
Look to the future
Budanov estimates there are more than half a million Russian troops in the occupied Ukrainian territories, but does not see much potential for movement on the front lines in the short term.
But he suggested that attacks on Russian infrastructure may grow. While refusing to acknowledge Ukrainian involvement in drone attacks in Russia, he said such operations were “quite possible.”
“Hypothetically, there is a plan according to which all this happens,” he said. “And I believe that this plan includes all the major critical infrastructure facilities and military infrastructure facilities of the Russian Federation.”
Now, Russian civilians, he said, finally “see the real picture [of war]. They see burning oil depots, destroyed buildings in factories and plants, and so on. This is all beneficial.” he said.
On Wednesday, Ukraine and Russia exchanged hundreds of prisoners of war, in the first swap following the crash of a Russian IL-76 transport aircraft. Moscow claimed Ukraine shot down the plane, which they said was carrying dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war.
Budanov was resolute in his confidence in a full victory for Ukraine over Russia, despite the public concerns over the fatigue of Ukrainian troops, Russia’s advantage in domestic military production and the lack of movement on the frontlines.
The next six months will be interesting, he said, with that period seeing the end of Russia’s ongoing push along the frontlines.
For Budanov, the war will only end one way.
“The establishment of justice – This is how it will end,” he said, “With the return of what was lost.”