Invasion threat from Belarus low, says Ukraine spy chief

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

“All of these are elements of disinformation campaigns,” he said.

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

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

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

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

However, longer-term risks remain, Budanov acknowledged, and other Ukrainian officials had noted 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 service is now pointing to an imminent threat from Belarus.

None of the Russian troops are arranged in assault formations, he said. Training camps for Russian soldiers are full of newly mobilized civilians who, after completing training, are sent to fight in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Training sites lack enough mechanically sound armored vehicles to mount an attack, she said.

Russia’s military has tried to raise alarms in the Ukrainian military by loading soldiers onto trains rattling toward Belarus’s border with Ukraine, he said. The Soviet Union employed similar tactics during World War II, sending soldiers in useless trains to imitate attacks or retreats. In Belarus, a train loaded with Russian soldiers recently stopped for half a day near the Ukrainian border and then returned with all the soldiers on board, Budanov said, calling it a “merry-go-round.”

Similarly, he said, Russia’s cross-border artillery barrage in the Sumy and Kharkiv regions of northeastern Ukraine, which has killed and injured dozens of people, does not herald an immediate threat of a new invasion. Russian military units do not assemble for an attack and “cannot be formed in one day.”

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

The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin insider, has crusaded to capture the city of Bakhmut to outshine rival commanders in the Russian regular army, Budanov said. Wagner coordinates with the army but is the main force on the Bakhmut front.

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

“There is only an ideological and media issue here,” he said of the ferocious assault on Bakhmut. “That is the reason why Wagner’s units are so fanatically trying to capture this city. They need to show that they are a force and that they can do what the Russian army couldn’t. We see it clearly and we understand it.”

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 inmates who are promised amnesty in exchange for a tour of duty on the front lines, videos of prison recruitment efforts show. These infantry units have been sent in costly wave attacks against the Ukrainian lines, Budanov said.

The alliance of Mr. Prigozhin and General Surovikin has led to the transfer of heavy weapons from the army to Wagner’s units, expanding the organization’s role in the war, Mr. Budanov said. Wagner’s mercenaries had previously fought in Syria and Africa. The group calls itself 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 contest between Ukraine’s air defense systems and Russian cruise missiles and drones aimed at infrastructure. electrical.

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

To persuade Iran to support this effort, Russia has offered scientific expertise to Iran’s military industry, Budanov said, describing the geopolitical link between Russia and Iran that emerged during the war in Ukraine. But it only goes so far, he said. Iran has so far refused to support Russia with ballistic missile transfers, a risk Ukrainian officials had previously raised alarm about.

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

Russia has so far fired around 540 of the drones, he said, in tactical strikes along the front line and in targeted bombing strikes of power plants, pylons for transmission lines and electrical substations.

Most small hang glider flying bombs are shot down before reaching their targets. But they are also cheap.

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

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