Budanov’s rising star: On the young military intelligence chief now set to lead the Ministry of Defense
Kyryl Budanov, head of Ukrainian intelligence, is being considered for the position of Minister of Defense (Photo:Jessica Koscielniak / USA TODAY via Reuters)
During the full-scale war, 37-year-old Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the Main Directorate of Intelligence (HUR) of the Ministry of Defense, became one of the most popular and influential security officials in the country. It is his department which conducts secret special operations, collects and analyzes intelligence data, and conducts successful negotiations on prisoner exchanges.
However, very soon, according to sources in the administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Budanov may be removed from the leadership of HUR. This won't be a punishment, because, according to David Arakhamia, head of the ruling Servant of the People party in the parliament, the chief intelligence officer is being considered as the main candidate for the post of defense minister in place of Oleksii Reznikov.
At the end of January, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) fell into a whirlpool of corruption scandals regarding military procurement. Reznikov's subordinates — his ex-deputy, the former head of one of the departments, as well as another official in the Ministry of Defense — received notices of suspicion from the law enforcement officers. Later, Oleksandr Liyev, who worked on the procurement of weapons and military equipment, resigned from the department “on his own.” He was accused of supporting the referendum in Crimea in 2014.
Reznikov's position has been so badly shaken that Arakhamia directly announced the defense minister's resignation, naming Budanov as his successor.
At the moment, this HR operation is on hold in Bankova [Ukraine's equivalent of the White House — ed.] The issue will not be considered this week, and there is no official indication of when it will be acted upon. According to a member of Zelenskyy's team, who agreed to speak with NV on the condition of anonymity, the Reznikov-Budanov case will stay in such a "suspended state" for the next few weeks.
But the chances that the young Ukrainian general now at the head of HUR will continue his rapid rise remain high.
A "logical" appointment?
According to Arakhamia, Budanov's appointment to the Minister of Defense position is "logical for wartime."
Budanov has not officially commented on this topic himself. However, according to the sources of political commentator Volodymyr Fesenko, the HUR head has allegedly refused to leave his post, saying that only civilians should hold a ministerial post — as is required by Ukrainian law. In this case, Budanov will have to reject the rank of major general.
"He does not want to leave military service and he is not very eager to take this position," Fesenko explained to NV.
The main reasons why the Office of the President (OP) wants to appoint Budanov to the Ministry of Defense are the trust they have for him and the lack of other "acceptable" candidates. Fesenko explains this by the fact that the intelligence officer is trusted in Bankova both in terms of his professional qualities and in terms of the authority he holds among the population. They said that his appointment to the Ministry of Defense would help to restore trust in the ministry and to bring order there.
As an anonymous influential figure within the president's team put it briefly, "that's what the president wants."
Maryana Bezuhla, a representative of Servant of the People in the Verkhovna Rada Committee on National Security, Defense, and Intelligence, explained Budanov's likely appointment with the fact that he has "trust, knowledge of the system, and determination under difficult circumstances." She also confirmed that this issue has been postponed until after the Ramstein format meeting taking place on Feb. 14. Just like the last such meeting, this meeting will concern the the strengthening of Ukraine's armaments will traditionally be discussed with partners, and the agreements made by the current minister Reznikov will play a key role.
Roman Kostenko, an MP from the Holos party and member of the Defense Committee of the Verkhovna Rada, told NV that he sees this as the wrong way to go. He believes the administration is "hanging [the Minister of Defense] out to dry," and says that this could shake communication with partners, in which Reznikov has had considerable success.
“[Our partners] will not understand if they have to agree on something with a minister who may be fired tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” Kostenko said.
Kostenko does not know why the Bankova wants to appoint Budanov instead of Reznikov. He suggests that "maybe it's because he's been in the media a lot and [the OP thinks] that people support it."
Intelligence officer from the very beginning
Budanov joined Zelenskyy's team in August 2020, even before the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. At that time, a scandal broke out regarding the failure of a special operation to detain Wagner PMC fighters who had participated in the war in Donbas. They were to be taken to Ukraine via Minsk and detained. But they were "intercepted" by the Belarusian security services and eventually returned to Russia. Media wrote that after domestic security forces reported the plans for the special operation to the newly-installed Zelenskyy Administration, the plot was foiled, probably due to a leak of information from Bankova.
Vasyl Burba, the head of HUR of that time, said that he was preparing a plan of measures to assess why the operation to capture the militants failed. However, he was fired.
Budanov took his place upon appointment by the President.
After receiving his new position, Burba gave an interview to ex-presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych on his YouTube channel, in which he questioned the failure of the special operation, and whether it even existed.
Budanov became the country's chief military intelligence officer at the age of 35. He had earlier held various positions in HUR, where he began serving immediately after graduating from the Odesa Ground Forces Institute in 2007. Since the spring of 2014, Budanov served in combat in Donbas, during which he received several injuries, including one that was serious.
According to publicly available information, in August 2016, Budanov conducted a special operation in the city of Armyansk in occupied Crimea. From 2018 to 2020, he was in a special position, on which information is classified.
Budanov himself likely made reference to this secret position in an interview with TSN last fall when speaking about an incident which happened to him at that time.
"At a certain point, I lost a bank card which was created even before my transition to a closed position," he said.
“I lost it, and all my information was already sealed. I came to the bank and did a stupid thing: without thinking, I asked to renew my card. She said: ‘Well, give us your documents.’ I handed them to her and she replied, ‘These are for another person, sorry.’”
In April 2019, an attempt was made on Budanov’s life. A bomb was placed under his Chevrolet Evanda, but the device prematurely detonated on one of the capital's streets. Budanov was not injured, and the Russian saboteur and the group that was supposed to blow him up were detained. In 2020, Budanov was named deputy director of the Department of the Foreign Intelligence Service. Later, he became head of HUR.
In this position, he played one of the most important roles in Zelenskyy's circle during the full-scale war.
In their reconstruction of the events on Bankova during the three days preceding the invasion, reporters from NV’s sister publication, Ukrainska Pravda, noted that it was Budanov who gave the most accurate forecast of the enemy's plans for Ukraine. During a meeting between the president and the heads of all parties of parliament, with the participation of the leadership of the Ministry of Defense, the SBU Security Service of Ukraine, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and the OP, which took place on the evening of February 22, 2022, the head of HUR "was the most important and accurate."
"Budanov took out a map from his papers and with a calm, self-absorbed expression on his face, began to say things that ought to have made the blood run cold in the veins of those present: the Russians were set to start a war outside the borders of Donbas; Kherson and Kharkiv were under threat, there was a threat to Kyiv, and the Russians may try to enter from Chernobyl,” explained the Ukrainska Pravda report.
The best person in the right place
Taras Berezovets, a political commentator and an officer of the Ivan Bohun 1st Special Brigade, is convinced that the decision to dismiss Reznikov and to appoint Budanov will instead be reversed. After all, it would be inappropriate: the country is on the threshold of a new Russian offensive, and the Minister of Defense is ensuring the effective supply of weapons and has gained undisputed authority in the West. In addition, there are no proven facts of his involvement in corruption.
Also, Berezovets also doubts that Budanov will give up his rank, which would be required by law for him to take a ministerial post.
"Budanov has built a fairly effective military intelligence service, which, as Russians accuse it, blew up the Crimean bridge, eliminated dozens of traitorous collaborators in the occupied territories, stole Russian equipment, and committed a huge amount of sabotage and soon, — says Berezovets.
“That is why, frankly speaking, there is no effective replacement of Budanov today. His departure to the Ministry of Defense would weaken both the ministry and the military intelligence."
Berezovets notes that this decision clearly belongs only to the president. However, in such a difficult time, it would have negative consequences.
Kostenko believes that it is too early to predict whether Budanov would be a good Minister of Defense. After all, this would be a political story, not an intelligence one.
"It's one thing to be an intelligence officer, and another to be a politician and manager," adds the MP.
“I can't say anything bad or good. It seems to me that we already had General [Andrii] Taran, who was also an intelligence officer and everything was fine with him there, but then they appointed him, and he was one of the worst defense ministers. Therefore, to predict something right now... We need to see how a person works directly in this position."
Fesenko, on the other hand, recalls the conflict between Taran and former commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, Ruslan Khomchak. He suggests that a similar competition could arise between Valery Zaluzhny and Budanov, if the second is named to head the ministry. Fesenko says this risk should be avoided.
"There is already a certain competition between Zaluzhny and Budanov in the media space," Fesenko argues.
“They do not compete with each other consciously. But their teams may do so."
Looking for the ideal
Kostenko believes that a wartime defense minister should clearly enjoy authority in both the military and in politics. Moreover, he is convinced that such an official should have the position of deputy prime minister.
"This is not a Minister of the Armed Forces, this is the defense minister of the whole country. And he should be able to have influence over all defense and security forces,” Kostenko asserts.
“Therefore, decency and qualities of the diplomacy are also essential. Our army is standing now in many ways at the expense of our partners. And a lot of depends on how you prove to them, explain things to them, and ask them for things."
Berezovets believes that a defense minister's "negotiating skills" are key. He also emphasizes the fact that the task of such a top official is not to plan operations, but to bring weapons and technologies to Ukraine and to be, first and foremost, a diplomat.
In addition, on the conviction of the military, the minister should use support inside Ukraine, in particular, from the nation’s leadership. And what is no less important is to have the trust of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
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