Russia’s reported appointment of Gen. Alexander Dvornikov to take over operations in Ukraine marks what some military analysts see as an indication that the war could be set to enter a brutal new phase as Moscow readies a major offensive in its neighbor’s east.
Dvornikov, who most recently oversaw Russian troops in Syria and has a history of targeting civilians, was chosen as the new ground commander in Ukraine, a U.S. official and a Western official confirmed.
His appointment signifies an apparent streamlining of Russia’s chain of command, replacing the three commanders previously heading the war with one central figure ahead of an expected renewed assault in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
The decision to bring in Dvornikov could also be an acknowledgment of what U.S. intelligence officials have described as a failure to achieve the quick takeover Russian President Vladimir Putin envisioned, retired Adm. James Stavridis said Sunday on “NBC Nightly News.”
“The appointment of this new general indicates Vladimir Putin’s intent to continue this conflict for months, if not years,” Stavridis said.
Dvornikov is known as the “Butcher of Syria,” Stavridis noted.
Intelligence officials have said that Putin expected the invasion in February to be a swift and easy win for the Kremlin but that it was met with an unrelenting resistance. Bringing in Dvornikov, a man known for his cruelty to civilians, is an attempt to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people, Stavridis warned.
“He is the goon called in by Vladimir Putin to flatten cities like Aleppo in Syria,” Stavridis said. “He has used tools of terrorism throughout that period, including working with the Syrian forces, torture centers, systematic rape, nerve agents. He is the worst of the worst.”
Dvornikov oversaw a Russian air campaign in Syria that flew more than 9,000 bombing sorties, Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper quoted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying in 2016. These Russian warplanes pounded rebel-held cities such as Aleppo and Homs, killing scores of civilians and turning the tide of the war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In October 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, described Aleppo as “a slaughterhouse” and “a gruesome locus of pain and fear, where the lifeless bodies of small children are trapped under streets of rubble and pregnant women deliberately bombed.”
A ‘more sensible’ strategy?
But it’s not just who Dvornikov is that’s significant, but also what his appointment says about Russia’s shifting command structure.
Until now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had “essentially three competing field commanders,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank based in London.
That fragmented hierarchy “reflects the fact that really this war was not started by the generals, but by the spooks; Putin and a handful of his closet ex-KGB allies have been micromanaging the process,” he said. “There’s a recognition that this didn’t work, and now it’s time to let the Russian army fight the way it was trained and prepared to fight.”
In Dvornikov the Russians have appointed a “high-flyer” who has served as commander of the southern military district since 2016 and has been tipped to succeed Valery Gerasimov as Russia’s chief of the general staff, Galeotti added.
Promoting him is part of a wider overhaul in which Russia will stop trying to fight on three fronts and instead focus on “another offensive to try to take the rest of the Donbas,” which Galeotti called “a more sensible and achievable objective.”
It remains to be seen whether Russia’s “broken” command structure will find success in Ukraine, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey told MSNBC on Saturday. Putin’s military failed to take control early on and has apparently now switched tactics, McCaffrey said.
“They’ve now gone to terrorizing civilians is our primary tool,” he said. “And Dvornikov was the first Russian commander in Syria, awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation award for primarily dropping barrel bombs on defenseless civilians and using poison gas against them.”
The potential horrors facing Ukrainians under Russian occupation were starkly brought into focus last week after Ukrainian forces retook the town of Bucha near the capital, Kyiv. Residents described arbitrary killings, intimidation and looting by Russian soldiers in the five weeks under their control.
Ukrainian officials estimate hundreds of civilians were killed in Bucha, and they accuse Moscow of committing war crimes there. Russia has denied targeting nonmilitary targets and accused Ukraine of staging atrocities to discredit it.
Asked by both CNN and MSNBC about Dvornikov on Sunday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan did not confirm or deny the appointment. He said on “Meet the Press” that the U.S. “will do whatever we can to help Ukraine succeed.”
He told CNN that “no appointment of any general can erase the fact that Russia has already faced a strategic failure in Ukraine,” adding that “this general will just be another author of crimes and brutality against Ukrainian civilians.”