Interview with the Chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine Kyrylo Budanov.
– Good afternoon. My name is Serhii Kuzan, I am the Chairman of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center. Today we are talking to a legendary man, a brigadier general, a full cavalier of the Order of Courage, a man hunted by Russian special services, the Chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine Kyrylo Budanov. Mr. Budanov, nice to meet you.
– Nice to meet you too.
– You have conducted dozens of special operations against the enemy. You have been repeatedly attacked, you are incredibly respected among your colleagues. Tell us a little bit about your military career and participation in the war.
– I chose my life path yet in childhood. I was determined to become a military serviceman, so after graduating from school I enrolled at the Odessa Military Institute, the faculty of “airmobile troops” as it was called at that time. After graduation, I began serving as an officer in a special unit of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. I served for a long time in this unit and met the outbreak of war there.
– So you always wanted to be an intelligence officer?
– Yes, of course.
– One can identify you as the personification of the new Ukrainian army. You do not belong to the old generation of Soviet commanders. How did you meet the war? How did young officers like you perceive it?
– For me personally and for many of my colleagues in the special unit, there was no fear when these events began. On the contrary, we all wanted to join battle faster to defend our state. However, the political leadership of our state at that time was reluctant to use us in the events related to the seizure of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea by Russian troops. Both now and then I reiterate that it was a big mistake, which cost us the loss of a huge part of our territory, and actually the whole war in Donbas started from this. If force had been used then, it would most likely not have happened. We met those times in such conditions.
– You mean these sentiments prevailed among your fellow officers?
– Yes. One should understand that the professional military served in the Main Directorate of Intelligence. That is to say, there were no conscripts – people who were mobilized. All people here were professional military servicemen. Everyone was involved in completely different tasks, but no one doubted the need to use special units.
– Much was heard in 2014 that the Ukrainian army was not ready, that there was a fear that everyone considered Russia a fraternal people, and their army fraternal accordingly. Was there a willingness to fight? Was there an understanding that Russia was seizing our land?
– There was a clear understanding that these were Russia’s actions, it had been reported repeatedly, many years before, that Russia was preparing this plan. The politics of that time forbade us to tackle with Russia, this is a fact. Therefore, all work on Russia was conducted exclusively within Crimea, most of such work. But even that small amount of work clearly showed that Russia was preparing to seize this territory. I emphasize once again – this had been repeatedly reported.
– We have a question about the time during Yanukovych’s presidency when Ukraine’s overall strategy was aimed at friendship with Russia, and Russia was not considered an enemy. And you say that the young officers had a clear understanding and, moreover, all this was reported to the state’s top leadership. How would you describe the period under President Yanukovych, when a Russian citizen even served as a defense minister?
– You actually answered all the questions yourself – the Minister of Defense was a citizen of the Russian Federation. Work on Russia was banned, with the small exception of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, where our intelligence center was located at that time. It provided some data on Russia’s activities within the ARC territory. Even that information gave a clear understanding that Russia was preparing to seize Ukrainian territory. Moreover, the seizure was not limited to Crimea or the East of Ukraine. Russia had been preparing and is further preparing for a serious annexation of Ukraine.
– Given the legends around you, your group, and special operations that you conducted in Crimea, please tell us the allowed information about your service in this direction? Maybe there are some facts you can disclose.
– I met the outbreak of war in the special forces unit. We dealt mostly with military intelligence issues. As you yourself mentioned, the army was paralyzed and there was a grave stumble in those issues that regular intelligence units of the Armed Forces had to deal with. That’s why we helped solve these issues. This was the case for almost all of 2014. Later the situation changed a little and we began to do more work specific to us: intelligence, covert operations, sabotage, etc.
– So, it was logical for you to be appointed to this position as a head. Did your expectations come true? How were you appointed to this position?
– It was a great honor for me when the President appointed me to this position. I am sincerely grateful to him for such trust. What are my expectations for the future? This is the reform of the military intelligence system and acquiring greater capabilities abroad. Because this branch was also almost completely destroyed.
– We see that the President is really making bold appointments of new people, and in fact now Ukraine’s new military-political elite is being formed. In your opinion, what’s this all about? How would you assess such personnel appointments, especially in the Ukrainian army?
– Changes are needed and they are timely. Unfortunately, the system of the Armed Forces lived in an unreformed Soviet past for a long time. If there was a full transition to NATO standards, the situation might be different.
– No one can deny that you are an excellent combat commander, but at the same time, your enemies said many things about you. That you are too young for such a top military-political position, that you do not have the relevant experience of Soviet generals. However, almost immediately after the appointment, your team took part in drafting a new law of Ukraine on intelligence and you actually lobbied for the adoption of this law in the Verkhovna Rada. And now, for the first time in 30 years, Ukrainian intelligence has a completely new law, new rules of the game, which moves us closer to Western standards. Could you please access the effect of this law, the events that happened before its adoption, and how life is going after the adoption of this law?
– I would change the wording. I am very pleased to hear this, but I did not lobby for the law. We took part in the development of this law and its adoption. This is a huge joint work of the Intelligence Committee, the Office of the President, and other colleagues from national security agencies. That is a good example of teamwork. How does this law help? I would say that this law has regulated certain issues of our activity, which for almost thirty years have simply not been regulated by anything. And they could be interpreted as being beneficial to certain people at a certain time, which in my opinion is not entirely correct. Moreover, this law helps to accelerate the reform of our system, as well as the acquisition of capabilities, I will repeat myself, because this law regulates our activities and we can fully rely on it.
– I see. Can we say that this law brings us closer to Western security standards so that Ukrainian intelligence feels more reliable and freer within the norms that apply in the Western world?
– Let us say like this. Ukrainian intelligence is the headliner in adopting Western standards and integrating into the Western system. Cooperation with the Western intelligence community has been established many years ago. More than ten years, much more, to understand the point. For a while, it subsided a little, then became more active. However, one way or another, it has been ongoing for quite a long time.
– Can you be called an adept of the transition to Western standards? Is this the correct wording?
– I think yes, that’s the correct wording.
– Let us go back to changes in Ukraine’s defense system, in the legislative support. Last year, the President submitted and adopted a new Military Security Strategy of Ukraine – a more systematic, comprehensive document that fully regulates the entire security sphere. How would you assess the place of Ukrainian intelligence and perhaps the document in general?
– Military intelligence is one of the main, and perhaps even the most important aspect of military security because the major task of military intelligence is to warn in advance of the enemy’s intentions to make decisions on the use of his forces and means against our state. At all levels, from sabotage to open military threat.
– We all got used to that war is only a frontline war, that it is only about weapons. But as it turned out from 2014, we all discovered that the war can be unleashed in the information sphere, in the humanitarian sphere, and in virtually all spheres of human and state life. As you said, the task of intelligence is to identify and prevent these threats. Tell us, please, what is a modern intelligence officer? Which employee are you raising for yourself? Perhaps the issues of patriotism were reconsidered, or some personal qualities for the young people who come to your service?
– I believe, and demand the same from my subordinates, that the modern intelligence officer, first of all, is a patriot and a professional in his field. These concepts must be distributed absolutely evenly because without one there will be no other. This is a person with high intelligence, able to make quick and independent decisions. Because nowadays, decision-making in many operations falls on the head of the person involved in the operation. Unfortunately, these are the realities of our war. And it does not always go as shown in movies, written in books, where someone reports on situational change, everyone thinks quickly, then provides a person with a clear answer, and he or she tries to implement something. No, in fact, in the conditions of continuous monitoring of all communication networks, there are many moments when a person has to make decisions personally and it is under these criteria that we will try to bring our employees.
– That’s actually what I’ve heard about you before. Unlike generals, old-type commanders, when a fighter is just a cog who fulfills orders obediently, you cultivate the fighter’s own initiative, personal qualities, and the ability to make decisions on his or her own. Is it only about your agency or can we say that such an approach is gradually being implemented throughout the Ukrainian army?
– I would like to believe it because I personally think it is right. Decision-making is one of the main features that any leader should have, anywhere. Initiative in decision-making and willingness to take responsibility for it.
– Ukraine is a full-fledged member of the international security forces, and carries out various joint operations on a par with other Western partners. We all have heard about the evacuation of Ukrainian and foreign citizens, as well as the press workers, organized by the Main Intelligence Directorate. Could you please tell us more about this operation?
– As for this evacuation operation, yes, the Main Intelligence Directorate actually played the key role. Our division specializes in such operations. This is a typical task for our special unit of the Main Intelligence Directorate. Many units worldwide would not dare to do something because of higher risks, but our vision is completely different. This was the key to that we managed to evacuate the group of journalists, about which the media talks so much now. However, I would like to notice that this was only one group that was so widely promoted in the media. There were representatives of many human rights organizations, media periodicals, for example, USA Today, The Washington Post, and others. The story, which everyone remembers, was the second stage of this task. At the first stage, 83 people were rescued, if I remember correctly.
– To provide logistics, to provide evacuation – this requires considerable effort.
– Considerable effort, but we are able to conduct operations in any part of the world, if necessary, and we do not need anyone’s permission or anything else. A decision is made and it will be implemented.
– How would you describe in general if such decisions are made promptly?
– This decision was made very promptly, in one day.
– Then my question may be provocative: why do we hear about such operations only now, only under this top military-political leadership? Why didn’t we hear about such events, which are extremely important for Ukraine’s international image, before?
– Probably because this President is the only one who is not afraid to take responsibility for such operations. One should understand that this operation ended well and correctly, to my mind. But there is always a risk that everything will go absolutely differently, and someone would have to bear the responsibility. That’s why many predecessors did not dare to do so. In my opinion, Ukraine has shown, given a signal to the whole world that it is, first of all, a credible partner that can be relied on in tough times. Secondly, it has shown everyone that things are actually quite different, despite all the repeated criticism from many, so to say, experts. In fact, Ukraine is able to become a reliable and strong partner for many Western countries – for those who are ready to become a partner for Ukraine.
– Let’s talk about the humanitarian aspect. Given the close cooperation with international intelligence services, how do you communicate with them? I know that their employees study Russian specifically to make it easier to communicate.
– To understand, our employees study many different languages, both Eastern and Western European. Those are absolutely all languages – from English and Portuguese to Hungarian and Polish. Oriental languages: it’s Farsi, Dari, and classical Arabic, African dialects, Japanese Chinese – the whole set. There is no language barrier for our employees. We communicate on par with everyone, there is no problem in communication.
– How would you describe the need to know the Ukrainian language? Because we often hear that professionalism is important, and language is something secondary.
– A person who is a citizen of Ukraine cannot fail to know the Ukrainian language. He or she can know many languages, be it 50, 100 languages – let him or her know as many as possible. But the official language is exclusively Ukrainian.
– What are the Western special services learning in our country, a country at war?
– Western partners are learning from us the forms and methods of waging war against a serious adversary. The military-political power of the Russian Federation cannot be compared to any Middle Eastern or African country. These are completely different conditions. They are not used to conducting their activities in such conditions and this is one of the main points where we found understanding and cooperation. We give them our experience, and they help us. That’s how it’s all built.
– You are always at the center of this cooperation. How would you assess cooperation and its intensity under the previous and current government?
– Firstly, the level of cooperation has not fallen, but only increased. Secondly, time will tell, and the current government still has some time. Let’s see with what achievements we will come to the next elections. To my personal belief, we will manage to overcome the situation of misunderstanding of our place and role in the NATO system. This problem arose many years ago and, unfortunately, no one has solved it yet. I believe that we will succeed.