February 8, 2023

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Invasion threat from Belarus low, says Ukraine spy chief

Kyiv, Ukraine — There is little imminent threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine from Belarus, the director of Ukraine’s military intelligence said on Friday, dismissing recent Russian maneuvers as either routine military activity or deceptions intended to confuse.

“These are all elements of disinformation campaigns,” he said, aimed at persuading Ukraine to divert soldiers from the combat zone in the southeast.

In a lengthy interview on the state of war in Ukraine, military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov also spoke about Russian efforts to encourage Iran to keep supplying its armed forces with drones and missiles, as well as Moscow’s seemingly pointless obsession with capturing the city of Bakhmut, which has little strategic value.

He made his remarks, which could not be independently verified, as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy triumphantly returned from Washington. “I’m in my office,” Zelensky said in a video posted to his channel on the Telegram social media app early Friday. “We’re working towards victory.”

For weeks, Russia has been bolstering its military bases in Belarus with conscripts and moving troops back and forth by rail, raising fears that it is planning a second invasion of Ukraine from the north.

Although the threat of another 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 rule out that possibility,” he added, “but also wrong to say we have any data to confirm it exists.”

None of the Russian troops are in attack formations, he said. Training camps for Russian soldiers are filled with newly mobilized civilians who, once trained, are sent to fight in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. The training facilities lack mechanically viable armored vehicles to carry out an attack, he said.

Russia’s military tried to sound the alarm in the Ukrainian army by loading soldiers onto trains chugging towards the Belarusian border with Ukraine, he said. The Soviet Union used similar tactics during World War II, he said, sending soldiers on useless train journeys to mimic attack or retreat. In Belarus recently, a train loaded with Russian soldiers stopped near the border with Ukraine for half a day and then returned with all the soldiers on board, Mr Budanov said, calling it a “merry-go-round”.

Likewise, Russia’s cross-border artillery shelling of the Sumy and Kharkiv regions of north-eastern Ukraine, killing and wounding dozens of people, is not a harbinger of an imminent threat of another invasion. Russian military units are not assembled for an attack and “cannot be formed in a day”.

Longer-term risks remain, Mr Budanov acknowledged, and other Ukrainian officials had flagged the risk of an escalation during the winter months in a series of interviews earlier this month. But Mr Budanov’s comments were the most concrete yet, noting that no information now indicates an imminent threat from Belarus.

In the south-east of the Donbass region, Mr Budanov said the political ambitions of the leader of a Russian mercenary army called the Wagner Group partly dictated strategy on the Russian side.

The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin insider, has embarked on a crusade to seize the city of Bakmut to outwit rival commanders of Russia’s regular army, Mr Budanov said. Wagner coordinates with the army but is the main force on the Bakhmut front.

A Russian general appointed in September to command Russian forces in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, has allied himself with Mr Prigozhin in a rivalry with Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, Mr Budanov said.

“There is only an ideological and media question here,” he said of the violent attack on Bachmut. “That’s why Wagner units are so fanatical trying to conquer this city. They must show that they are a force and can do what the Russian army could not. We see that clearly and understand.”

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

Wagner runs units of prisoners who are promised amnesty in exchange for service on the front lines, showing videos of prison recruitment efforts. Those infantry units were sent into costly human wave attacks on Ukrainian lines, Mr Budanov said.

The alliance of Mr. Prigozhin and General Surovikin led to the transfer of heavy weapons from the army to Wagner’s units and expanded the organization’s role in the war, Mr. Budanov said. Wagner mercenaries had previously fought in Syria and Africa. The group describes itself as a private military company.

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

Since October, Russia has fired salvoes of missiles and drones at Ukraine’s energy infrastructure at intervals of about a week to as many as 10 days, Mr Budanov said, with an average magnitude of about 75 missiles per salvo. The drones were mostly supplied by Iran, and Mr Budanov said Russia is also counting on Tehran to stock up on its missile arsenal.

In order to persuade Iran to support those efforts, Russia offered scientific expertise to Iran’s military industry, Mr Budanov said, describing the geopolitical ties between Russia and Iran that emerged during the war in Ukraine. But it only goes so far, he said. Iran has so far declined to assist Russia in transferring ballistic missiles, a risk Ukrainian officials had previously sounded the alarm about.

“Iran is in no hurry to do this, for understandable reasons, because as soon as Russia fires the first missiles, sanctions pressure on Iran will increase,” Mr. Budanov said. Under a deal struck over the summer, Russia acquired 1,700 so-called Shahed blast drones from Iran, Mr Budanov said. They will be 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 targeting power plants, pylons and substations.

Most of the small flying bombs with delta wings are shot down before they reach their target. But they are also cheap.

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