WASHINGTON – Russia has tapped a new Ukraine war commander to take centralized control of the next phase of battle after its costly failures in the opening campaign and carnage for Ukrainian civilians. U.S. officials don't see one man making a difference in Moscow's prospects.
Russia turned to Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, 60, one of Russia’s most experienced military officers and — according to U.S. officials — a general with a record of brutality against civilians in Syria and other war theaters. Up to now, Russia had no central war commander on the ground.
The general's appointment was confirmed by a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to be identified and spoke on condition of anonymity.
But the White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said “no appointment of any general can erase the fact that Russia has already faced a strategic failure in Ukraine.”
“This general will just be another author of crimes and brutality against Ukrainian civilians,” Sullivan said. “And the United States, as I said before, is determined to do all that we can to support Ukrainians as they resist him and they resist the forces that he commands.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki echoed that thought. “The reports we’re seeing of a change in military leadership and putting a general in charge who was responsible for the brutality and the atrocities we saw in Syria shows that there’s going to be a continuation of what we’ve already seen on the ground in Ukraine and that’s what we are expecting,” she said.
The decision to establish new battlefield leadership comes as Russia gears up for what is expected to be a large and more focused push to expand Russian control in Ukraine's east and south, including the Donbas, and follows a failed opening bid in the north to conquer Kyiv, the capital.
Dvornikov gained prominence while leading the Russian group of forces in Syria, where Moscow has waged a military campaign to shore up President Bashar Assad’s regime during a devastating civil war.
Dvornikov is a career military officer and has steadily risen through the ranks after starting as a platoon commander in 1982. He fought during the second war in Chechnya and took several top positions before being placed in charge of the Russian troops in Syria in 2015.
Under Dvornikov’s command, Russian forces in Syria were known for crushing dissent in part by destroying cities, lobbing artillery and dropping what were often crudely made barrel bombs in sustained attacks that have displaced millions of Syrian civilians. The United Nations says the more than decade-long war has killed more than 350,000 people.
In 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Dvornikov the Hero of Russia medal, one of the country’s highest awards. Dvornikov has served as the commander of the Southern Military District since 2016.
Lt. Col. Fares al-Bayoush, a Syrian army defector, said Sunday that while the situation in Syria is different than in Ukraine because the Russian military was fighting insurgent groups and not Ukraine's professional army, he expects a similar “scorched-earth” strategy.
Al-Bayoush said he believes the aim of naming Dvornikov as Ukraine war commander is to turn the war into “rapid battles” in several places at the same time.
“I expected him to use the scorched earth policy that was used in Syria," al-Bayoush said, referring to Russian-backed attacks in Syria in which cities and towns were put under long sieges while being subjected to intense bombardment that left many people dead and caused wide destruction to infrastructure and residential areas. “He has very good experience in this policy.”
“This commander is a war criminal,” al-Bayoush said by telephone from Turkey.
Since Russia joined the war in Syria in September 2015, Assad’s forces have taken control of most of the country after being on the verge of collapse. The Russian air force carried out thousands of airstrikes since, helping Russian-backed Syrian troops take areas after fighters were forced to choose between an amnesty in return for dropping their arms or being taken by buses into rebel-held areas.
The last major Russian-backed offensive in Syria lasted several months, until March 2020, when a truce was reached between Russia and Turkey, which supported rival sides.
Sullivan on Sunday said the Russian general has a record of brutality against civilians in Syria and “we can expect more of the same" in Ukraine. But he stressed that the U.S. strategy remains the same in supporting Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Our policy is unequivocal — that we will do whatever we can to help Ukraine succeed,” Sullivan said. “Which means that we need to keep giving them weapons so that they can make progress on the battlefield. And we need to keep giving them military support and strong economic sanctions to improve their position, their posture at the negotiating table."
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, meanwhile, spoke by video conference Sunday to a small number of Ukrainian troops in the U.S. who are now returning to their country. The group has been in the U.S. since last fall for military schooling and were given training on new drones the U.S. sent to Ukraine last week for the war with Russia.
Austin thanked the Ukrainian troop members for their courage and service and pledged continued U.S. support and security aid, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. Kirby said the small group was given some advanced tactical training, including on the Switchblade armed kamakazi drones, as well as instruction on patrol craft operations, communications and maintenance.
In an interview Saturday with The Associated Press, Zelenskyy acknowledged that despite his hopes for peace, he must be “realistic” about the prospects for a swift resolution given that negotiations have so far been limited to low-level talks that do not include Putin.
Zelenskyy renewed his plea for more weapons before an expected surge in fighting in the country’s east. He said, with frustration in regards to supplies of weapons from the U.S. and other Western nations, “of course it’s not enough.”
Sullivan spoke on CNN's “State of the Union” and NBC's “Meet the Press. Psaki spoke on ”Fox News Sunday."
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.