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Ukraine intel chief predicted Russia’s war. He says Crimea will be retaken.

Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, in his office in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 20. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)
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KYIV, Ukraine — Hours before all of his warnings about a Russian invasion were proved spot-on, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence boss, moved his wife into his office, fearing that the worst would not indeed happen.

It was Feb. 23 — the night before Russia launched its war on Ukraine — and Budanov had staked his career on being the rare Ukrainian official who was convinced that Russia was about to attack and attempt to capture Kyiv, the capital.

He and his wife stared at the clock that night, anxious that Budanov could soon be out of work if all did not go as he had loudly predicted to Ukraine’s skeptical political leadership.

“We’d had this conversation that if this attack doesn’t happen, we’re not going to look very good,” he said in a recent interview. “We had specifically said that at 4 a.m. it would start. It sounds really weird, but I was scared it wouldn’t go as it should.”

Eleven months later, the 37-year-old Budanov’s words carry serious weight with President Volodymyr Zelensky and others in Kyiv. In Ukrainian political circles, he is respected as the one person — along with U.S. and British intelligence — who correctly warned months in advance what Russia was planning.

At the time, he was largely brushed off. Most other Ukrainian government and military officials expected Russia’s invasion to be limited to the eastern part of the country rather than a full scale, three-pronged attack.

Budanov’s forecast for this year is that Russia will focus on occupying more territory in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. A renewed offensive from its forces stationed north of Ukraine, in Belarus, is unlikely, he said, and just an attempt to distract and divide Kyiv’s troops. He also said that “we must do everything to ensure that Crimea returns home by summer.”

Asked if he thinks Ukrainian troops reaching Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed illegally in 2014, could trigger Russian President Vladimir Putin to use a nuclear weapon, Budanov said: “This is not true. And Crimea will be returned to us. I’ll tell you more: It all started in Crimea in 2014, and it will all end there.”

“It’s a scare tactic,” he added, speaking in his office, where he keeps a pet frog. “Russia is a country that you can expect a lot from but not outright idiocy. Sorry, but it’s not going to happen. Carrying out a nuclear strike will result in not just a military defeat for Russia but the collapse of Russia. And they know this very well.”

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Budanov’s other claims have included that Putin is terminally ill with cancer and has multiple body doubles. “It’s an open question if it’s the real Putin now,” Budanov said. He is so confident in his intelligence that he occasionally opens a folder to give exact figures — “approximately 326,000 Russian forces” fighting in Ukraine now or that Russia has just 9 percent of its stock of Kalibr long-range missiles left.

Zelensky appeared to lean on his intel in a recent address at the economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, when he said he is not sure Putin is still alive. (CIA Director William J. Burns has said there is no intelligence suggesting Putin is sick.)

“There are always doubts from others,” Budanov said. “How effective I am in this position, that will probably only be evident in the future by history. I can’t objectively assess myself. Time will tell.”

Budanov’s quick rise to becoming one of the youngest generals in Ukraine’s history accelerated in August 2016, when a lieutenant colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, was killed in Crimea, allegedly by Ukrainian saboteurs. Budanov was believed to have been one of the Ukrainian special operators involved, working behind enemy lines, and he was later awarded Ukraine’s “Order of Courage” for undisclosed operations. In 2020, then just 34, he was named head of Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence, or GUR.

Budanov is still coy about the details years later. He would not confirm or deny the operation or his part in it. “Something happened,” he said.

“And all of the attempts on my life started after that,” he added.

In 2019, a bomb was placed under his car but detonated prematurely. There have been at least 10 assassination attempts, according to a person close to Budanov.

Being marked for death has led him to live a cautious personal existence, but risky operations are still in his wheelhouse. Budanov lives at his office. He rarely goes out in public. Classical music plays round-the-clock in his office — perhaps a defense against any attempts to listen in on what is said inside.

He remains a target for the Kremlin. After an explosion on the Crimean Bridge in October, Moscow named Budanov and other GUR agents as the culprits.

Ukrainian officials, including Budanov, have not publicly claimed responsibility for the bridge attack or others deep into Russian territory.

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Two drone attacks in December on Russia’s Engels air base in Saratov, more than 370 miles from the Ukrainian border, showed “that we have the ability to reach many kilometers farther than they could expect,” said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defense council.

Operations on foreign soil would technically fall under Budanov’s purview. In the interview, he did not confirm that his special forces were behind the strikes, which targeted strategic bombers Russia has used to hit Ukrainian cities, but he said to expect more and that Ukraine has agents working inside Russia.

“This shattered their illusions of safety,” Budanov said. “There are people who plant explosives. There are drones. Until the territorial integrity of Ukraine is restored, there will be problems inside Russia.”

He also suggested that the Kremlin should fear collaborators in its midst. “There are indeed people who are very easy to work with on that territory, people who understand that Russia should be different,” he added. “And we support such people.”

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A painting in Budanov’s office hints at successes he cannot openly discuss. It features planes depicting the GUR evacuating people from Afghanistan during the fall of Kabul in 2021; Ukrainian helicopters representing the daring air missions by his forces to resupply encircled Ukrainian fighters at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol; and a satellite, a nod to the reconnaissance his agency conducts daily.

There are weapons stashed in the corner and bullets on his desk.

“What’s next?” Budanov asked, repeating a request that he serve up further predictions. “Ukraine’s victory,” he said. “I’m not saying anything new.”

Serhiy Morgunov in Kyiv contributed to this report.