KYIV, Ukraine – Russia will run out of “military tools” to achieve its war aims in Ukraine by the end of the spring, Ukraine’s top military intelligence official predicted in a USA TODAY interview.
Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov’s forecast comes amid considerable uncertainty about what the next phase of the war will look like as it moves into its second year. For weeks, Ukrainian officials had signaled that Russia was planning a major new offensive to coincide with the one-year anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24. A notable new offensive has yet to materialize.
“Russia has wasted huge amounts of human resources, armaments and materials. Its economy and production are not able to cover these losses. It’s changed its military chain of command. If Russia’s military fails in its aims this spring, it will be out of military tools,” Budanov said in his heavily guarded, fortified Kyiv office, which he shares with two pet frogs, poisonous-gas detecting canaries and a range of ammunitions.
‘We need to keep living’:What life is like for Ukrainians a year into Russia’s invasion
Budanov further predicted that Ukraine and Russia would fight “a decisive battle this spring, and this battle will be the final one before this war ends.” He did not provide any specific evidence to back up his claims. And it’s important to note that Moscow and Kyiv are involved in an intense information war as well as fighting on the battlefield. Some military experts have cautioned that both sides need to be prepared for a long fight.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has belied many expectations, to say nothing of predictions. Still, this much, at least, can be said with certainty: We are nowhere near the end of this war. Despite mounting calls for a diplomatic settlement, no such breakthrough is on the horizon. Russia and Ukraine both continue to believe they will prevail if they keep fighting. No mediator can break this impasse,” Rajan Menon and Benjamin H. Friedman, of the Washington, D.C.-based Defense Priorities think tank, said in a joint statement last week, a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Still, Budanov’s forecast appears to fit with the consensus view among independent military analysts that Russia currently lacks the ammunition, military supplies and sufficient quantities of skilled, organized and motivated soldiers to make significant headway against Ukrainian defensive lines in Ukraine’s east, where fighting is heaviest.
“Russia’s lost about half of its tanks, its artillery fire is down, it doesn’t have a productive base to make a lot of new equipment. And making new equipment isn’t easy under sanctions. So it’s going to have to take stuff out of storage,” said Phillips P. O’Brien, a professor of strategic security studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
“Ukraine is stronger now than it was on Feb. 24 (last year, the day of the invasion). It’s getting better systems. It’s integrating a lot of NATO systems. Russia equipment-wise is weaker. It has less-well trained troops, less frontline equipment. The only thing it has more of is soldiers, but I’m not a huge fan of masses of untrained soldiers,” he said.
‘It’s hard, they’re holding on’:On ground in Ukraine, war depends on U.S. weapons
In late December, the Pentagon assessed that Russia’s military would likely run out of its newer stocks of ammunition by early 2023, forcing it to rely on stocks produced during the Cold War. These stocks are less reliable and potentially degraded.
Russia has the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear warheads – though Russian President Vladimir Putin has appeared to largely rule out using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine.
Budanov, 37, is the chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. He became Ukraine’s top military intelligence official at age 34. He is one of the youngest generals in Ukraine’s history, and his name was recently floated by lawmakers as a potential replacement for Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister. He is also an enigmatic former special forces commander believed to have taken part in a range of classified special operations behind enemy lines.
Some of his previous forecasts for the war’s overall trajectory have proved accurate. In an interview with USA TODAY in November 2021, Budanov predicted that Russia late that year would gradually escalate a series of false-flag provocations as a pretext to launch an invasion, sparking an energy crisis, economic turmoil and food insecurity in countries that rely on Ukraine’s exports. All of these things later happened.
In this latest interview, conducted in mid-February, Budanov said the war would not end until Ukraine’s Crimea region, on the Black Sea, was liberated from Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also made the return of Crimea and all other territories occupied by Russia to Ukraine a condition of any peace settlement. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a recent online forum that losing Crimea, where there is a naval base, to Ukraine would cross a “red line” for Russia and likely risk an escalation of the war.
In the interview, Budanov dismissed suggestions from influential opinion- and policymakers in the West who claim that by supplying ever-more heavy weapons to Ukraine, NATO risks becoming entangled in a broader war with Russia.
“I apply a different logic when I look at this issue,” he said. “This conflict has already grown into an existential war between Russia and the West. Yes, the West is not participating in this war with their militaries. But they are providing us with weapons so we can use them in the fight. This means a Ukrainian victory over Russia is a common victory. And if Ukraine falls – though unlikely – it’s a defeat for all of Western civilization.”
In recent days, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China, which has not condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, was considering supplying Moscow with weapons and ammunition. Beijing has already been supplying civilian aid.
“Ukraine is getting stronger, Russia weaker. China can change that,” said O’Brien.
Still, Wesley Clark, a retired four-star U.S. general who is a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, said in an interview that while China has “substantial military equipment, and a very large force, a lot of that equipment is probably not modernized, especially the army equipment. China’s priority has been its naval, air and missile modernization. … It may not have the masses of new hardware Russia (needs).”