Back in Washington, officials were secretly monitoring the Ukrainians’ plans. The White House had long worried that attacks inside Russia could provoke an aggressive response from the Kremlin.
On Feb. 22, two days before the anniversary, the CIA circulated a new classified report: The HUR “had agreed, at Washington’s request, to postpone strikes” on Moscow. The documents, part of a trove of classified information allegedly leaked on a gaming server by a 21-year-old member of the National Guard, don’t explain precisely who interceded and why the Ukrainians agreed to stand down.
But they offer a specific example of a broader tension that has characterized much of the war: Ukraine, eager to bring the fight to Russia’s home turf, is sometimes restrained by the United States, which has tried to avoid escalating the conflict into a direct fight between U.S. and Russian forces. Some U.S. officials see attacks on Russia, particularly if they involve U.S.-supplied weapons, as highly risky operations that Russian President Vladimir Putin could find so threatening that he resorts to using tactical nuclear weapons.
And yet mysterious explosions and drone strikes continue to happen in Russia. Ukrainian officials are often coy about the incidents, hinting that they’re responsible without directly taking credit.
“The Earth is round — discovery made by Galileo,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter in December after an attack on the Engels-2 air force base, deep inside Russia. “If something is launched into other countries’ airspace, sooner or later unknown flying objects will return to departure point.”
Operations on foreign soil fall under the HUR’s purview. Budanov, an ambitious 37-year-old general and rising star in the Ukrainian military, doesn’t acknowledge that his agency is behind the attacks. But he has warned they will continue.
“This shattered their illusions of safety,” Budanov told The Washington Post in January. “There are people who plant explosives. There are drones. Until the territorial integrity of Ukraine is restored, there will be problems inside Russia.”
Budanov did not comment for this article. U.S. officials did not comment on the leaked documents about anniversary strikes.
Privately, U.S. and European officials express their admiration for Budanov. But they also say his audacity sometimes makes them nervous.
On Feb. 13, the day that the NSA document said Budanov had instructed one of his officers to be ready for an operation presumably aimed at Novorossiysk, the United States repeated its public advisory for citizens in Russia to leave the country immediately. It’s not clear that the warning anticipated an aggressive Ukrainian strike, but it appears to reflect a level of concern in Washington about attacks around the anniversary.
Budanov is known for bold claims and pronouncements, which many Western officials regard skeptically. He has said that Putin is terminally ill, an assertion that U.S. intelligence officials have rejected, and that he uses multiple body doubles. Budanov exudes confidence that Ukraine will prevail over Russia — and soon. He has said that Crimea, the highly fortified peninsula Russia illegally annexed in 2014, must be returned to Kyiv this summer. The leaked documents show that the U.S. intelligence community views that scenario as unlikely.
The documents also make clear that the U.S. intelligence community is monitoring Budanov’s communications, which seems not to be news to the general. In past interviews with The Post, Budanov, perhaps aware that he was being spied on, has played music or static noise in his office at HUR headquarters.
Washington’s intercession ahead of the war’s anniversary appears to have been only partially successful. “There is no indication” that Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, “agreed to postpone its own plans to attack Moscow around the same date,” the CIA report said. The SBU, which is responsible for state security and reports directly to the president, also conducts special operations.
Ukraine appears not to have held its fire for long. A week after the anniversary, Moscow publicly accused Kyiv of attempting drone strikes on infrastructure in Russia, including near the capital.
Ukraine continues to have ambitions to expand the battlefield beyond its home territory, the classified documents show. Budanov’s agency made plans to attack members of the notorious Russian military contractor Wagner Group in Mali, where personnel provide security assistance to the Malian government and training for its military, the documents state. Wagner has played a pivotal role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and provides essential front-line support to Russian military forces.
“It is unknown what stage the operations [in Mali] were currently in and whether the HUR has received approval to execute its plans,” the NSA document says.
The HUR also developed plans to conduct covert attacks on Russian forces in Syria using secret Kurdish help. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky halted the offensive, but one of the intelligence documents details how Budanov’s agency could still launch deniable attacks that would avoid implicating the Ukrainian government itself.
Officials in Washington and Europe have admonished Ukraine for attacks outside its territory that they felt went too far. After a car bomb near Moscow in August killed Daria Dugina, in an attack that appeared intended for her father — a Russian nationalist whose writing had helped to shape a Kremlin narrative about Ukraine — Western officials said they made clear to Zelensky that they held operatives in his government responsible. The attack was seen as provocative and risked a severe Russian response, officials said.
U.S. officials are also concerned that Beijing is likely to view attacks by Ukraine inside Russia as “an opportunity to cast NATO as the aggressor,” and that China could increase its support to Russia if it felt the attacks were “significant,” according to other classified documents contained in the trove.
So far, officials have said there is no indication that China has granted Russia’s request for lethal military aid. However, a Ukrainian attack on Moscow using weapons provided by the United States or NATO would probably indicate to Beijing that “Washington was directly responsible for escalating the conflict” and provide possible justification for China to arm Russia, the analysis concludes.
The United States prohibits Ukraine from using American weaponry to strike Russia. One Ukrainian official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, pointed to an attack in December on a Russian strategic bomber base using Ukrainian-made drones as evidence that Kyiv was adhering to the rules Washington has imposed.
Ukrainian officials have long privately said that the United States has de facto control over some military operations. For example, Kyiv typically won’t fire its advanced U.S.-provided rocket systems without coordinates confirmed or provided by U.S. military personnel from a base in Europe, to ensure the strikes’ accuracy and to conserve artillery.
A senior Ukrainian official said that Kyiv’s willingness not to fire on certain targets and to coordinate with the Americans should encourage the United States to provide more modern and longer-range weapons, such as the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, a munition that can travel up to 185 miles. Biden administration officials have declined to provide the weapon, which is in limited supply and might be seen by Russia as an escalation by the United States, officials have said.
The strikes in Russia have been a morale booster for Ukrainian citizens, who have taken to calling the billowing smoke from the mysterious explosions “bavovna,” or “cotton.” Stores sell T-shirts with cotton flowers blooming on the Kremlin’s walls, and cotton bouquets are popular gifts.
The attacks may be getting to Putin, too. Citing security concerns, he recently opted to cancel some regional Victory Day parades celebrating the upcoming anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. May 9 is considered one of Russia’s most important holidays and an opportunity for the Kremlin to flex its military muscle with a display of tanks and other weaponry in central Moscow.
Khurshudyan reported from Kyiv.