Exclusive: Ukraine's top military spy says captured American fighters could be released in prisoner swap

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KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine has a network of spies inside the Kremlin, its military will soon score "obvious" victories in its unprovoked war with Russia, and two American volunteer fighters for Ukraine captured by Russia's military will likely be released within "a few months" in a prisoner swap, Ukraine's top military intelligence official said in an exclusive USA TODAY interview.

Maj. Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov made the rare disclosures, some of them on extremely sensitive topics, in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday at the Defence Intelligence unit of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine's well-fortified Kyiv headquarters.

Budanov said that Ukraine's spies are embedded in Russia's presidential administration, in its parliament and in several branches of Moscow's intelligence services. He also predicted in the interview that if Ukraine's military continues to receive substantial military aid from its allies, then by mid-August it will start scoring decisive "wins" in its four-month-old war with Russia that "will be obvious for the world community." His prediction came as Russian forces overwhelmed more villages in eastern Ukraine amid a slow but systematic advancement through the industrial heart of Ukraine.

On the two American volunteers fighting for Ukraine who were captured by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk, and who the Kremlin says could face the death penalty: "We are working on it," Budanov said. "The way of resolving it is not easy ... but we do see a way to resolve it. It will be more or less related to a prisoner swap. We have at our disposal people who the Russians want very much, who they need to get back very much ... but it also won't happen in a week or two. It will take a few months."

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Budanov confirmed Russian media reports claiming the two U.S. citizens – Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, from Hartselle, Alabama – are being held in a prison in the Donbas. He said Ukraine knows which prison it is. He declined to comment on how the Americans are being treated for fear of jeopardizing ongoing efforts to secure their release. During the interview, a bright yellow folder with information about the Americans was placed prominently on Budanov's desk.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on a possible prisoner swap. But the State Department’s chief spokesman Ned Price said last week that U.S. officials had been in touch with both Russian and Ukrainian authorities about Americans who may have been captured while fighting in Ukraine.

“We are pursuing every channel, every opportunity we have, to learn more and to support their families, especially in this difficult hour,” Price said during a Tuesday press briefing.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told NBC News on Friday the men were “heroes” and vowed to fight for their release.

Budanov said that based on "human intelligence" information that Ukraine's operatives have collected from inside the Kremlin, it appears Russian President Vladimir Putin is suffering from several "grave" illnesses and "doesn't have a long life ahead of him." Budanov said his office believes Putin will die from these illnesses within two years.

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He did not provide any specific evidence for these claims. Putin's health has long been a source of rampant speculation, with unverified reports alleging he is perhaps suffering from a form of blood cancer or Parkinson's disease. Many Russia experts have dismissed these claims about Putin's poor health as wishful thinking. The Kremlin does not respond to questions about the president's personal health.

It's highly unusual for an intelligence chief of any country to be so forthright about espionage operations and it was not immediately clear why Budanov revealed specific information about where Ukraine's operatives are embedded. Russia and Ukraine are involved in an information war as well as one on the battlefield.

Zelenskyy may replace the chief of Ukraine's Security Service, its domestic intelligence agency known as the SBU, over perceived failures during the early days of Russia's invasion that may have caused it to lose some territory, Politico reported Thursday. There are numerous examples of Russian spies infiltrating the SBU.

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Reports suggest the CIA has occasionally managed to place moles inside the Kremlin, but the current status of its spying operation in Russia is not publicly known.

Budanov declined in the interview to elaborate on what Ukraine's forecasted "wins" would look like, saying only that Ukraine is working to restore its "territorial integrity step-by-step." He acknowledged future victories are dependent on military aid from Western partners. He further predicted that "closer to winter, there will be a downturn in hostilities" and "the fighting is likely to reach its lowest point" by early next year.

"We see small victories every day," Budanov said. "And, of course, sometimes there are also defeats. We cannot escape that."

Russia appears to have the upper hand in intense battles currently underway for control of the eastern cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, where Ukrainian forces are outnumbered. Ukrainian troops are retreating from Sievierodonetsk, a move described Friday by a senior U.S. defense official as a tactical move to protect their forces.

In an interview with USA TODAY last November, Budanov predicted that Russia in late 2021 would gradually escalate a series of false-flag provocations as a pretext to launch an invasion, sparking an energy crisis, economic turmoil and food insecurity in countries that rely on Ukraine's exports. All of these things have now happened.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, initially seeking to gain control of the capital Kyiv and other cities. After Ukrainian forces rebuffed that assault and recaptured large areas around Kyiv in early April, Russia abandoned its push toward the capital.

For the last few months, Moscow has pivoted its military attacks to Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists held large swaths of Ukraine's territory before the invasion. Russian forces have continued to bombard key Ukrainian locations with missile strikes and artillery shelling. Its forces have made slow but steady progress in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they have more heavy weaponry in place than Ukraine which has suffered high casualties, according to intelligence assessments by the British government and others.

However, The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based policy research organization, concluded this week that Russian offensive operations will likely stall in the coming weeks due to substantially degraded "quantities of Russian personnel, weapons, and equipment."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently warned that the war could last for years and said sending more weapons to Ukraine would make its victory more likely.

Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of the Washington-based think tank Silverado Policy Accelerator, wrote in a recent Twitter thread that he believes this winter is "likely the earliest time for ending the hostilities." Alperovitch, one of the few independent Russian policy observers to correctly predict Russia's invasion of Ukraine before U.S. intelligence assessments came to the same conclusion, said that having "failed at his original (and wildly unrealistic) plan of replacing Zelensky's government in 3 days and not having the forces to go back for major new offensives, Putin's best bet for achieving strategic success is now at the negotiation table."

Alperovitch said this winter is "when the impact of (Russia's) Black Sea blockade and the games that Putin is playing with Europe's gas supply will really start to have a major impact on the West (and everyone else)."

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Budanov said that four months into the war, Russia has not achieved any of its "strategic tasks" in Ukraine, including the total seizure of territory in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Among the other topics discussed by Ukraine's top military spy:

  • Ukrainian operatives have already started hunting to kill Russian military personnel who they believe are responsible for war crimes in Ukraine; "torturers," as the Ukrainians call them. "Amid the fog of war sometimes the Russians cannot clearly differentiate if a person just died in a battle or if there's been a targeted assassination," Budanov said of these activities. He said these operations have also taken place inside Russia, successfully targeting mid-ranking Russian officers.

  • Budanov confirmed previous remarks he made to Ukrainska Pravda, an online newspaper, that Putin survived an assassination attempt two months before he launched his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Budanov said the unsuccessful attempt on Putin's life took place in the Caucus region, an area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The incident was not reported at the time, he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine spy chief: Russia's Putin in poor health, Americans may be freed