Ukraine’s Military Spy Chief Says Russia Will Struggle to Keep Up the Fight

Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov says Russia’s war effort in Ukraine has problems.
Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov says Russia’s war effort in Ukraine has problems.

Summary

Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov said Russians ”don’t have the strength” to achieve the strategic goal of seizing two eastern Ukrainian regions this year.

KYIV, Ukraine—Russia’s capture of the east Ukrainian city of Avdiivka is the clearest sign yet of a shift in the war’s momentum as it approaches its third year.

In an interview Thursday, with Ukraine’s withdrawal already under way, Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military-intelligence chief, acknowledged the tough situation for Ukraine’s outnumbered and outgunned forces. But Russia also has problems, he said.

Russia’s professional army was largely destroyed in the first year of the invasion, he said, meaning it now throws untrained conscripts into suicidal assaults. It uses more artillery shells than it can produce, and although it fielded hundreds of tanks last year most of them were old models taken from storage and refurbished, while only 178 were new. Missile attacks on Ukrainian cities have subsided in recent weeks as Russian supplies have run down.

As a result, Budanov said, Russia will struggle to achieve its main strategic goal of seizing all the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions this year. “They don’t have the strength," Budanov said.

Western officials and analysts see Budanov’s reading as the optimal scenario for Ukraine this year. If Ukraine can fight a smart defensive battle, wearing down Russian strength while rebuilding its own forces, the thinking goes, it could launch another counteroffensive against a weakened opponent in 2025.

A recent study by London-based think tank the Royal United Services Institute suggested Russian forces are likely to peak toward the end of the year, then struggle increasingly with a lack of ammunition and armored vehicles in 2025.

There is one wild card: whether additional U.S. support, blocked by Republicans in Congress, will come through.

“Will they be prepared to provide us with supplies for the full year while we are preparing or not?" Budanov said. “It’s an interesting question."

Ukraine’s leadership, Western military planners and analysts have raised concerns about a lack of equipment and manpower after a failed counteroffensive last year. For its part, Russia has proved able to find recruits for its military. Budanov said the Russian military had 510,000 military personnel in and around Ukraine and has been able to recruit about 30,000 a month. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in December that Ukraine has some 600,000 serving troops of various kinds, although military commanders say that not enough of those are combat-ready.

But Moscow hasn’t used its troops efficiently. Zelensky said at a security forum in Munich on Saturday that Russia had managed to advance only marginally, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, by laying waste to small settlements.

Budanov also sought to put the Russian capture of Avdiivka into a broader context. It had taken the Russian army nearly two years of heavy assaults since the start of the full-scale invasion to take the city, he said. By another count, it has been almost a decade, as Russian paramilitaries had been attacking the city since 2014.

“Is that a success for the great, powerful Russian army?" Budanov said.

Alongside its military assaults, Budanov said, Russia was seeking to stir trouble in Ukraine’s society and armed forces. He said Moscow recently activated a plan that combines disinformation and attempts to assassinate prominent Ukrainians in an effort to cause discord in Ukraine and weaken the resolve of the country’s soldiers. The peak would come in spring, he said, and be accompanied by powerful military assaults aimed at taking advantage of any strife.

Former President Petro Poroshenko last week said he had been prevented from traveling to Germany for the Munich conference because of an alleged assassination plot against him. Poroshenko, a rival of Zelensky’s, called the move an example of Ukrainian authorities’ attempts to sideline political opponents.

Budanov wouldn’t comment on the specific case but said Russia had been planning false-flag operations against Ukrainian politicians that could be used to divide society by blaming authorities.

Another example he cited was a recent claim by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that French President Emmanuel Macron had canceled a trip to Kyiv last week because he feared assassination there.

Around the same time, a video was being shared online purporting to show a report on French news channel France 24 making the same claim. France 24 said the video was a so-called deepfake made using artificial intelligence to reproduce the presenter’s voice. French officials denied any cancellation because of security concerns and said Macron would visit before the middle of next month.

Budanov said the incident was all part of the Russian operation. “It’s all elements of the same big idea," he said.

Nikita Nikolaienko contributed to this article.

Write to James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com

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