January 29, 2023

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Threat of Invasion From Belarus Low, Says Ukraine Spy Chief

5 min read

KYIV, Ukraine — The director of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said on Friday that Russia was trying to convince Ukraine to divert soldiers from the combat zone in the southeast with a flurry of military activity to the north in Belarus, dismissing the activity as routine maneuvers or feints intended to confuse.

“These are all elements of disinformation campaigns,” he said.

In a wide-ranging interview on the state of the war in Ukraine, the military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, also spoke about Russian efforts to encourage Iran to continue to supply its forces with drones and missiles, as well as Moscow’s apparently senseless obsession with conquering the city of Bakhmut, which has little strategic value.

He made his assertions about Russian activity in Belarus and Iran, which could not be independently verified, as Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, made a triumphant return from Washington. “I am in my office,” Mr. Zelensky said in a video posted to his channel on the Telegram social media app early Friday. “We are working toward victory.”

For weeks, Russia has bolstered its military bases in Belarus with conscripts and moved troops by rail to and fro, raising concerns that it might be planning a second invasion of Ukraine from the north.

While the threat of a renewed Russian invasion from Ukraine’s northern border with Belarus is not imminent, Mr. Budanov said, it still cannot be ruled out. “It would be wrong to discount this possibility,” he added, “but also wrong to say we have any data confirming it exists.”

Yet, longer-term risks linger, Mr. Budanov acknowledged, and other Ukrainian officials had pointed out in a series of interviews earlier this month the risk of an escalation during the winter months. But Mr. Budanov’s comments were the most concrete yet in specifying that no intelligence now points to an imminent threat from Belarus.

None of the Russian troops are arrayed in assault formations, he said. Training camps for Russian soldiers are filled with newly mobilized civilians who, after completing training, are sent to fight in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. The training sites lack sufficient armored vehicles in mechanically working order to stage an attack, he said.

Russia’s military has tried to raise alarms in the Ukrainian army by loading soldiers on trains that chug toward Belarus’s border with Ukraine, he said. The Soviet Union employed similar tactics during World War II, sending soldiers on useless train rides to imitate attacks or retreats. In Belarus, one train loaded with Russian soldiers stopped recently for half a day near Ukraine’s border, then returned with all the soldiers aboard, Mr. Budanov said, calling it a “carousel.”

Similarly, he said, Russia’s cross-border artillery shelling into the Sumy and Kharkiv regions of northeastern Ukraine, which has killed and wounded dozens of people, is not a harbinger of an immediate threat of a repeat invasion. Russian military units are not assembled for an attack and “cannot be formed in one day.”

In the southeast in the Donbas region, Mr. Budanov said, the political ambitions of the leader of a Russian mercenary army called the Wagner Group have partly dictated strategy on the Russian side.

The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin insider, has made a crusade of capturing the city of Bakhmut to upstage rival commanders in the Russian regular army, Mr. Budanov said. Wagner coordinates with the army but is the primary force in the Bakhmut front.

A Russian general appointed in September as commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, has aligned with Mr. Prigozhin in a rivalry with the Russian minister of defense, Sergei K. Shoigu, Mr. Budanov said.

“There is only an ideological and media question here,” he said of the fierce assault on Bakhmut. “That is a reason Wagner units are trying so fanatically to capture this town. They need to show they are a force, and they can do what the Russian army could not. We see that clearly and understand.”

While capturing Bakhmut is not considered strategically important, it would improve Russia’s position in the east by opening roads to other Donbas cities still under Ukrainian control, he said.

Wagner operates units of prisoners who are promised amnesty in exchange for a tour of duty on the front line, videos of the recruitment efforts in prisons show. These infantry units have been sent forward in costly human wave attacks at Ukrainian lines, Mr. Budanov said.

The alliance of Mr. Prigozhin and General Surovikin has led to the transfer of heavy weaponry from the army to the units of Wagner, expanding the organization’s role in the war, Mr. Budanov said. Wagner mercenaries had earlier fought in Syria and Africa. The group calls itself a private military company.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is now fought in two largely separate arenas: the ground battles in the south and east, and a contest between Ukraine’s air defense systems and Russian cruise missiles and drones aimed at electrical infrastructure.

Since October, Russia has fired volleys of missiles and drones at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in intervals of roughly a week to 10 days, Mr. Budanov said, with an average scale of about 75 missiles in each volley. The drones have been supplied largely by Iran, and Mr. Budanov said Russia is also counting on Tehran to replenish its missile arsenal.

To persuade Iran to support this effort, Russia has offered scientific know-how to Iran’s military industry, Mr. Budanov said, describing the geopolitical tie between Russia and Iran that has emerged during the war in Ukraine. But it only goes so far, he said. Iran has so far declined to support Russia with transfers of ballistic missiles, a risk Ukrainian officials had raised alarms about previously.

“Iran is not hurrying to do this, for understandable reasons, because as soon as Russia fires the first missiles the sanctions pressure will grow” on Iran, Mr. Budanov said. Under a contract reached over the summer, Russia acquired 1,700 so-called Shahed exploding drones from Iran, Mr. Budanov said. They are delivered in tranches.

So far, Russia has fired about 540 of the drones, he said, in tactical strikes along the front line and in barrages aimed at power plants, pylons for transmission lines and electrical substations.

Most of the small, delta-wing flying bombs are shot down before reaching their targets. But they are also cheap.

In Iran, Mr. Budanov said, the manufacturing cost is about $7,000 per unit, though it is unclear how much Iran actually charged Russia for the weapons.