The rise of Military Intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov — NV profile
A young general: Kyrylo Budanov, 37, started in the DIU as an ordinary operative, went through special operations in Crimea and Donbas, and became the head of military intelligence in August 2020 (Photo:NV)
How Kyrylo Budanov went from the paratroopers to the recon scouts, the wounds he has sustained, and why he constantly rushes into the fray – the life story of the head of Ukraine’s HUR with all the details.
On the evening of February 23, 2022, Kyrylo Budanov, the head of the Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR) of the Ministry of Defense, brought his wife Marianna from their home to his office.
At that moment, he knew for sure that in a few hours, Russian troops would attack Ukraine and there would be no time to worry about his family.
Ukraine’s chief of military intelligence knew a lot at that point: the invaders would try to enter the capital and planned to eliminate the entire leadership of the country.
Budanov also knew about Russian dictator Vladimir Putin's intentions to change the history of Ukraine in just three days, turning it into a Russian satellite.
However, even he did not imagine that his wife would spend the first few months of the full-scale invasion with him on the Island – as the HUR residence on Kyiv’s Rybalsky Peninsula is unofficially known. Nor that the war itself would drag on for more than a year.
Budanov did not know that 2022 would transform him in the eyes of his compatriots into a source of verified information about the enemy and fairly accurate military forecasts, expressed in an unerringly steady tone. And for the Russians, including in the highest levels of the Kremlin, the chief military intelligence officer of Ukraine would over the first year of war become the personification of Ukraine’s covert power, which lies behind daring sabotage operations in the Russian rear, including the explosion on the jewel of Putin’s neo-imperial crown, the Crimean bridge.
Moscow's propagandists get nervous every time Budanov gives another interview calmly speaking about the inevitable collapse of the Russian Federation, showing a map of a dismembered Russia hanging in his office.
"The HUR works in many ways, starting from the information front and ending directly with intelligence activities, as well as the destruction of the occupiers in the combat zone," explains Oleksandr Kovalenko, a military expert of the Information Resistance group.
Russian paranoia over the head of the HUR has led the Kremlin to indict him in absentia in the Lefortovsky District Court of Moscow for “organizing terrorist attacks.” On the eve of May 1, Budanov even found himself in Moscow, but not in person: someone pasted several A4 sheets with his portrait and the signature "Our President" on the crowded streets of the Russian capital.
The flip side of Budanov’s notoriety in Russia is reflected in more than 10 assassination attempts against him.
Sitting in his dark office, which looks more like a museum with its paintings, photographs, and displayed weapons arranged in the most unexpected places (grenades, for example, were given a place right on the top of his desk), the country's chief military intelligence officer speaks to NV in his usual, unperturbed manner about the fate that awaits the Russian Federation.
At this moment, the Internet meme dedicated to the head of the HUR, in which his last name is played like this: Buddanov, becomes clear.
NV took a detailed look at the biography of Ukraine’s # 1 operator and was convinced that this meme could have been born long before the full-scale war.
"I had already became interested in intelligence work in my teenage years. I read a lot of different military literature," 37-year-old Budanov recalls.
But in 2007, when he turned 21, the future head of the HUR entered the Odesa Institute of Ground Forces as a cadet of airborne troops.
Budanov was already secretive and self-reliant, Oleksandr Fatsevych, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, who studied alongside Budanov, told NV. The two men were in the same company at the academy, in different platoons. They talked often, especially when they were going through the so-called young fighter course — the initial stage of training, which includes a lot of physical training.
"There are people who love collectivism and live by it. Budanov, on the contrary, is quite independent,” recalls Facevych. “He always studied well. He has a mathematical mindset, and likes to delve into the matter completely."
A year before graduation, Budanov decided to go into intelligence. This was despite the fact that almost nobody ever transfers out of the airborne forces, Fatsevych explains, as they have always lacked personnel, and the transfer process is extremely troublesome.
This did not stop Budanov: after receiving his diploma, he immediately found himself in the HUR, becoming an operative in a special intelligence unit. At that time, there were not enough people working "in the field" in the department.
This deficit became fully apparent with the beginning of Russia's occupation of Crimea and part of Donbas.
As Valery Kondratyuk, who led the HUR in 2015-2016, told NV, the intelligence services began at that point to actively prepare for special combat operations. It was possible to understand the wisdom of this strategy already in the summer of 2016, when the administration received information that a group of Russian military helicopters had entered Dzhankoy, a town in the north of occupied Crimea, near the administrative border with Kherson Oblast.
"We understood: using these helicopters, which operate at low altitudes, the enemy could try to seize the dam of the Crimean Canal [opening fresh water access to the peninsula]," Kondratiuk explains. "The Russians could land an amphibious assault there, and we wouldn’t have time to do anything."
In order to neutralize the helicopters, he ordered an operational group led by Budanov to be sent across the administrative border into Dzhankoy District. The operatives were prepared for the most serious work – they were, for example, forbidden to leave any wounded in the occupied territory, even if their evacuation would be impossible.
In August 2016, Budanov's group deployed to the occupied territory. The HUR will not disclose the details of the mission, but NV was told that while leaving for evacuation, the operatives encountered members of Russia’s elite Vympel special operations group.
According to Budanov, the battle with them lasted literally two minutes – the Ukrainians killed the enemy forces along with their commander, a hero of the Chechen wars. And then they went home.
As several members of the security forces explained to NV on the condition of anonymity, then-President Petro Poroshenko even interrupted a foreign visit during the operation, fearing that the clash would cause a crisis in relations with Russia.
On the Island, NV was told off the record that members of Vympel apparently decided to take revenge on the Ukrainian operatives for the fight. In June 2017, Maksym Shapoval, the commander of the unit that participated in the Dzhankoy operation, was killed. And in April 2019, Budanov's personal car was blown up in Kyiv. Security forces detained a Russian citizen with documents identifying him as Aleksei Lomaka. It was he who planted a bomb under the car, which prematurely detonated without harming its intended victim.
To the Island through the Bankova
After the Crimean operation, Budanov often appeared on the front line in Donbas. There, he was wounded three times.
“The first time was easy. I caught a piece of shrapnel. Then it was difficult: after the explosion of an anti-personnel mine, one of the fragments hit my heart. I was told it was too dangerous to remove from my body. My back and neck were broken. I went through the front line at my own pace, on adrenaline, for about 5 km, and then collapsed, exhausted,” Budanov recounted to NV. "The injury is serious, but survivable." The third time, he was shot in the right arm, which has not been able to bend well since then, as the bullet knocked out his elbow joint.
Budanov will not discuss the circumstances of his injuries, but all things considered, the missions he undertook were quite serious. In 2016, he was given the rank of major, then promoted in another two years to lieutenant colonel, before making a full colonel in 2020. By the time of his last promotion, Budanov had already been designated an officer on special assignments, deputy head of the Department of Operations, and then deputy director of the Foreign Intelligence Service.
At the same time, Budanov began attending meetings at the Bankova [the building in downtown Kyiv that hosts the Office of the President (OP)], held by the newly-elected president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Budanov’s "guide" to this world was most likely Roman Mashovets, a former military intelligence officer who assumed the position of one of the deputy heads of the OP in May 2020.
As Bankova sources told NV, Budanov made a good impression on the President at several of these meetings. And that's why in August 2020, Zelenskyy named him as head of the HUR. This happened in the wake of the so-called Wagnergate — a Ukrainian special operation to detain militants of the Russian PMC Wagner who had fought in Donbas.
At that time, a number of domestic journalists and politicians, followed by the then-head of the HUR, Vasyl Burba, stated that the failure of the operation (to apprehend Wagnerites en route to Venezuela), occurred after members of Ukraine’s SBU security service and HUR reported everything to Bankova, saying that the Minsk-Istanbul flight with the Wagner men aboard was supposed to "land" in Kyiv under the guise of an emergency landing. The OP apparently decided to postpone everything, after which the Wagnerites were detained in Minsk, and eventually the self-proclaimed president of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, handed them over to Moscow.
The accusations were denied by those close to the President, but Burba began to insist that Head of the OP Andriy Yermak undergo a polygraph test.
After that, the too-persistent head of the HUR was dismissed, and the young Budanov took his place.
"You would be surprised, but the situation with the Wagnerites was not significant at that moment," Budanov tells NV now. “It was artificially inflated by the media at the time, to the point of absurdity."
At the same time, he refers to the findings of the Verkhovna Rada’s temporary investigative commission (TCC), which did not find evidence that Zelenskyy ordered the postponement of the operation at Yermak's suggestion.
The members of the TCC (which had 8 of its 11 members belonging to President Zelenskyy’s party, including its head, Maryana Bezugla) also stated that Yermak had no authority to give any instructions to the security forces.
"There are open reports from the temporary investigative commission which states that the enemy knew about the upcoming operation," adds Budanov. "And the consequences of the forced landing of the Turkish plane would not have been as pleasant as some say. Belarus forced a plane down similarly and was put under sanctions."
Before the war, Budanov was at the center of a public scandal once. At the end of 2021, the journalists of the Skheemy project discovered that the head of the HUR and his wife had moved into a house belonging to the family of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Oleksandr Gogilashvili.
A lot was written about Gogilashvili in the media at the time, including that he had gotten into a fight with a policeman at a checkpoint near the entrance to Kramatorsk after refusing to present his documents. Editor-in-chief of Censor.Net Yuriy Butusov reported that the deputy minister was using an HUR armored vehicle, given to the department by the U.S. embassy, and security from the Ministry of Defense for his trip.
Zelenskyy, outraged by Gogilashvili's behavior, dismissed him from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Budanov explained that he was living in the Gogilashvili-owned residence while his own apartment was being renovated. NV also reported that he continues to communicate with Gogilashvili and sees nothing wrong with it. The former deputy minister reportedly joined the Shaman military intelligence unit and, among other things, helped repel the Russian attack on Hostomel airfield on the first day of the war.
Budanov also ended up somewhat in the spotlight last summer, when at the request of the HUR, the courts allowed former MP Semyon Semenchenko, an individual with a murky reputation and one of the organizers of the Donbas volunteer battalion , to be moved from state custody to a 24-hour house arrest. Semenchenko is accused of esatblishing a private army and shelling the building of Viktor Medvedchuk’s TV channel 112.
"It was not right that Semenchenko was in custody, let's start with that," NV Budanov explains without a shadow of excitement or doubt. "We will not go into details, but whatever he is, he is definitely not the main enemy of Ukraine. Did he contribute in 2014 and 2015? Where is he now? We’ll see." However, he did not expound on this topic.
Budanov also discreetly commented on the information about presenting HUR awards to certain bloggers during the war, including Ksyusha Maneken, who once earned money as an escort. According to him, the bloggers carried out reconnaissance tasks from March to May 2022. Budanov declined to comment on what exactly they were doing.
Budanov began talking about the fact that Russia would attack Ukraine in the fall of 2021, when the Bankova was still tirelessly denying the risk of a full-blown invasion.
He does not accuse the OP of "blindness," saying that the country's leaders could not say anything about the reality of the threat from the north at the time, since the exact date of the invasion was not known. "There were still some steps that were attempted in order to prevent the war from happening. But as we moved closer to the date when everything fell into place, you did not see any political statement from the top leadership that there would be no war," he clarifies.
Budanov adds that he received fairly accurate information about Putin's desire to start a war from HUR, which has grown tenfold over the past few years. He carefully hinted that he was speaking of information coming from people close to the Kremlin.
According to him, Russia’s key objective at the start of the campaign was to seize the Hostomel airfield near Kyiv. It was there that the Russians’ first landing group arrived to ensure the arrival of dozens of Il-76 heavy lifters with a large number of troops on board. "Everything was supposed to end, according to the Russians' calculations, no later than at the end of the third day. The Russians were supposed to raise their flag over Kyiv, change the leadership of Ukraine, and in fact, create a new country," Budanov reflects.
Vadim Popyk, the commander of Ukraine’s International Legion, who was on the Island in the first hours of the war, told NV that Budanov remained composed at the time, calming everyone down and trying to act clearly and intelligently.
"At the beginning of the war, I thought: if we hold out for two weeks, the Russians will not succeed," Budanov explains.
Hostomel airport was defended, and the Russian blitzkrieg failed. Then the intelligence agency itself, according to one of its officials speaking on the condition of anonymity, began carrying out purges, identifying and detaining Russian agents.
Vadym Ivchenko, a member of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, met Budanov in March 2022. A U.S. soldier who previously conducted special operations in Iraq, wanted to contact the head of the HUR, and Ivchenko arranged the meeting. Then there were several more rendezvous, and as a result, the U.S. citizen played an important role in organizing military aid to Ukraine.
"That American later admitted to me: if he hadn't sensed Budan's sincerity, and had not seen that he really wanted to carry out the most complex operations, he wouldn't have helped. But the fact is that with his assistance, we advanced certain things in the U.S. Congress and intelligence community," Ivchenko explained.
In this regard, Dmytro Usov, Budanov's deputy, recalled that even before the war, his boss had begun establishing relations with the military attachés at the embassies of Western countries, gaining access to foreign intelligence. This made it possible to resume the exchange of information, conduct certain activities, and train Ukrainian officers with some of them. "Then this was effectively manifested during the war," Usov added.
Fatsevych brings up Budanov’s activities in the spring of 2022 for another reason. The military had decided to knock the enemy out of the village of Ruska Lozova, north of Kharkiv, in order to protect the city of a million people from artillery fire. The peculiarities of the terrain and the enemy's defensive structures left no option for this objective other than a frontal attack, but Ukraine could not manage to break through the front for a long time.
Fatsevych was at a command post when Budanov arrived. "He gave the command: alright, let's get to work. It was necessary to set an example – I will go and you will follow,” said the deputy head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. “After the battle, the guys from Kraken [a special unit of the HUR] gave interviews, saying ‘our commander was walking with us.’ And they took Ruska Lozova. The boys suffered losses, but they had no choice."
Budanov also visited his soldiers in Severodonetsk under Russian siege. Last May, he was going to fly to liberate Snake Island in the Black Sea. "He was practically removed from the helicopter," said one of Budanov’s subordinates. Budanov had been promoted to major general shortly before this episode.
When Zelenskyy put the top intelligence officer in charge of the release of Ukrainian prisoners of war, Budanov again began to "rush into battle," planning to make the trip to neutral territory for the first exchange. But he could not, and the young general was replaced by his wife.
"If the Russians had found out that the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence or his wife had come for the exchange, the consequences could have been unpredictable," says Usov, who led the exchange negotiation group. “But everything went well, and I exhaled. The prisoner exchanges became regular afterwards.”
Budanov also did a lot for the defenders of Mariupol’s Azovstal. He managed to organize their exit from the besieged factory in such a way that it would not look like a humiliating capture, which is what the Russians wanted. Budanov even met with the Pope to speak on the issue of exchanging Azovstal defenders.
Everything is going according to plan
Military journalist Yuriy Butusov sees Budanov as a person who is used to risk and who has cultivated many combat-ready units of risk-taking troops under his leadership. This, he believes, deserves respect. "It raises another question: how these wonderful people are used at the front, what losses they are suffering, and whether these losses correspond to the results achieved," Butusov adds.
The HUR explains that in the first days of the war, their units were a collective mess, so they did not always achieve their goals and suffered losses. At times, groups of HUR troops had to enter the hottest spots on the front to stabilize the defense, as was the case in Severodonetsk and Bakhmut. This also did not contribute to personnel retention.
And yet, thanks to numerous successful operations, the HUR and its special forces have turned into a global brand, military analyst Oleksandr Kovalenko explains.
"When we were young, it was impossible to guess which of us would become a hero. All the more so before Budanov had shown himself to be a leader," Fatsevych says with a smile. "But life has put everything in its place," he adds sternly.
On the Island, the place that Budanov was given to oversee, it seems that they are all in agreement with this.
Sitting in the middle of his museum-like office, in his now-famous black chair which has appeared in hundreds of photos published around the world, under a picture of an owl, the symbol of the HUR, holding a bat (the symbol of Russia’s military intelligence) in its claws, Budanov confidently declares to NV that the Armed Forces of Ukraine may enter Crimea this year, and that the war will definitely end in 2023.
"Everything is going according to plan for us. Absolutely all my predictions are coming true," he asserts without a shadow of a smile on his face.
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