Ukraine’s top spy believes Russia is still on the brink of civil war

Major-General Kyrylo Budanov believes Russian society is effectively split into two, and that Russia itself is on the brink of a civil war.
russia civil war
General Kyrylo Budanov, 37, Ukraine's military intelligence chief poses in his office on February 15, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo Laurent Van der Stockt for Le Monde/Getty Images)

The first Russian civil war began in a very familiar way. Russian society was so far behind the rest of the developing world, the gap between Russian aristocracy and the common people had never been wider, and it was compounded by economic hardship, short supplies, and military failures.

Russia lost a devastating war leading up to its entry into World War I as the Tsar regime became increasingly autocratic. As casualties and losses among conscripted men mounted during the great war, the people had finally had enough. The Tsar did little to address the problem, being consumed by the war effort. 

In February 1917, protests began that led to the ouster of Tsar Nicholas II. By October, the Bolsheviks seized power, ended Russia’s participation in the Great War and sparked a five-year civil war.  

Some of that might sound familiar. Russian President Vladimir Putin was nearly ousted himself in June 2023, but not by the proletariat. This time, the event that nearly toppled the Tsar was led by an insider, oligarch and head of the mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin, of course, stopped the coup before it began but experts – especially those in Ukraine’s intelligence agency, the GRU – believe it was just the beginning. A new civil war, it says, could be on the horizon. 

Major-General Kyrylo Budanov of Ukraine’s GRU says his agency conducted an internal study of its intelligence to review the level of support Putin’s government still has in Russia. He found that during the Wagner Rebellion, Prigozhin’s uprising had the support of 17 of Russia’s 46 regions, whereas Putin only controlled 21. The other eight regions of Russia were split between the two men. 

russia civil war spy
Head of Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Kyrylo Budanov attends an event for the return of commanders of Ukrainian forces who held Mariupol’s resistance in the city’s Azovstal steel plant, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on July 8, 2023. (Photo by YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP via Getty Images)

Budanov believes Russian society is effectively split into two, and that Russia itself is on the brink of a civil war. One small internal incident, similar to Prigozhin’s, could be the catalyst that lights the flame and intensifies the conflict. On this issue, Ukraine and Putin seem to be in agreement. Putin has begun bolstering his national guard forces, a move some say the Kremlin made because it doesn’t believe the worst is over. 

Putin has moved forces from the Russian Federal Drug Control Service to the Rosgvardiya, a national guard force that reports directly to the Russian President, made specifically to prevent a coup. Since the June 23rd uprising by Wagner forces sought to oust Russian military leaders (not necessarily Putin, according to Prigozhin himself) Russia has allegedly begun a campaign to root out potential traitors in the ranks of the military. 

The moves also imply that Russian security forces were caught totally unprepared for such an uprising and did not effectively respond to the attack on Russia’s military leadership and cities. Putin had to get the extra troops from somewhere, as Ukrainian forces are currently in the middle of a slow but effective counterattack that has led to advances in Bakhmut and toward Donetsk and Mariupol. Experts believe the capture of Bakhmut cost the Russian Army around 100,000 troops, and more than 231,000 Russians have been killed in the war thus far. 

As for the other conditions that led to Russia’s first revolution, the Russian economy isn’t being hit as hard as Western sanctions predicted, but in the long run, Putin has mortgaged the future of the country to fund the war. He’s printing money, forcing oligarchs to buy Russian debt, and running budget deficits while labor strikes begin across the country.

With the news that Russian officials are open to hearing American plans to end the war, the question remains if Vladimir Putin will find a way out before the Russians kick him out.