A general who bombed Syrian cities into the ground has been appointed Russia’s top commander in Ukraine and is already suspected of ordering a missile strike that killed 50 civilians at a railway station.
Alexander Dvornikov is one of Vladimir Putin’s favourite generals and has been handed the task of refocusing Russia’s stalled military campaign, but his appointment has sparked fears that the war will now enter an even bloodier phase in the Donbas.
“The move to empower him is a dangerous sign that Putin has no intention of giving up in Ukraine anytime soon but could truly try to take most, if not all, of eastern Ukraine,” said Harry Kazianis, a US military analyst from the Centre for the National Interest.
“Dvornikov is a smart tactician and strategist who will use siege warfare tactics just like they were used in Syria. My fear is that Dvornikov is under orders that if he can’t take eastern Ukraine he will turn it into a giant Aleppo.”
The same day as his appointment was announced, at least 52 civilians were killed and more than 100 wounded in a Russian missile strike on a railway station packed with people trying to flee from Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Eyewitnesses said many of the dead were women and children.
The Kremlin has denied responsibility for the attack but it had the hallmarks of tactics used by army General Dvornikov, who made his name ordering unrelenting bombing raids on the Syrian city of Aleppo in 2015 and 2016 that killed thousands of people.
“This was an attack using Aleppo-style tactics,” said a military analyst in Moscow who declined to be named. “Dvornikov is known as a ruthless commander and will deploy tactics used in Syria now in Ukraine. He was in Chechnya 20 years ago. This is about liberating cities by reducing them to rubble.”
Putin had expected a quick victory in Ukraine but the Russian army came up against stronger-than-expected resistance and after six weeks of fighting has sustained thousands of casualties. He has now ordered his forces to retreat from outside the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and to concentrate on taking control of more territory in the Donbas.
Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, said on Saturday that Ukraine was ready for a tough battle for the Donbas. “Yes, (Russian) forces are gathering in the east (of Ukraine),” he said. “This will be a hard battle, we believe in this fight and our victory. We are ready to simultaneously fight and look for diplomatic ways to put an end to this war.”
Western intelligence sources have said that one of the reasons that the Kremlin’s campaign in Ukraine has stalled is because of its muddled command structure which had been split into three areas of responsibility.
Putin now hopes that as the overall commander, Dvornikov will install more operational discipline. He had been in command of Russia’s southern military district which invaded Ukraine from Crimea and has been considered a relative success.
The thick-set 60-year-old career officer, unsmiling and with pale blue eyes, looks every inch a Russian military commander. He is best-known for leading the initial military intervention in Syria in 2015, a campaign hinged around a ferocious bombing campaign that killed an estimated 2,000 civilians, including 200 children.
“Having failed in Ukraine so far, except for committing war crimes, Putin has appointed a new commander, General Alexander Dvornikov, with extensive experience in committing heinous genocidal crimes against defenceless civilians in Syria,” said the Syrian Revolution Network, a group linked to pro-West rebels in Syria.
In the six months that Dvornikov ran Russia’s military campaign in support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, his air force conducted 9,000 bombing sorties, destroying large parts of Aleppo, Homs and other smaller towns.
He is known for having helped to devise a Russian strategy to break the will of civilians living in besieged cities by deliberately targeting basic infrastructures such as bakeries, hospitals and water sources.
For Russia and the Assad regime, the approach was a success. His campaign forced Western-backed rebels and Islamic State extremists to pull out, “liberating” huge areas for Assad and impressing Putin, who awarded Dvornikov the top military medal Hero of Russia when he returned to Moscow.
The Kremlin has not commented on Dvornikov’s promotion.
Meanwhile, Russia staged war games involving up to 1,000 troops in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. Moscow this week warned against any potential action against the territory, saying “this would be playing with fire”.
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