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Russia’s new commander in Ukraine

Russia’s new commander in Ukraine

A new phase of Russia’s invasion has begun and Vladimir Putin has put a new general in charge. What do we know about him and what does it mean for the war in Ukraine?

“What we are expecting is a new very concentrated Russian offensive in Donbas to try to occupy, to take the whole of Donbas.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, April 5th 2022

Russia has made some significant changes to its strategy in Ukraine.

Soldiers have withdrawn from areas around the capital, Kyiv, forced to retreat by fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces.

The Russian army is now focusing its efforts on the eastern Donbas region, which borders Russia.

“The headlines this morning, President Zelensky has issued a rallying cry to Ukrainian forces after saying that the next phase of Russia’s assault on the country has begun.”

Today programme, BBC Radio 4

Before the Battle for Donbas began, Russian president, Vladimir Putin appointed someone new to lead his troops. A man called Aleksandr Dvornikov.

So who is he and what does it mean for the war in Ukraine?

***

“He is the goon called in by Vladimir Putin to flatten cities like Aleppo in Syria. He is the worst of the worst.”

Admiral James Stavridis, NBC news

Aleksandr Dvornikov is one of the most senior generals in the Russian armed forces. A career soldier, he trained in Russia’s top military academies and has been in the army for 40 years. 

He’s an experienced commander too and a close ally of Vladimir Putin.

But what he’s really known for is his brutality. 

Aleksandr Dvornikov made a name for himself during one of the most savage bombardments of a city in recent history. He fought during the second Chechen war in 1999 – when the Russian military levelled the city of Grozny.

“A constant pall of smoke hangs over the city, blotting out the sky. District by district, street by street Grozny is being reduced to blackened ruins.”

Archive of Robert Parsons, BBC

At that time, Aleksandr Dvornikov commanded a motor rifle division designed for heavy combat, the sort of unit that helped to raze the city of Grozny to the ground.

Years later, he had risen up through the ranks to become one of Vladimir Putin’s most trusted generals. 

In 2015, the Russian president put him in charge of the country’s forces in Syria, where they supported Syria’s president Bashar al Assad – a ruthless dictator and ally of Vladimir Putin. Syria had descended into civil war after President Assad’s security services violently cracked down on Arab Spring protests against his regime. 

Places that were home to people opposed to President Assad were targeted and the city of Aleppo was an opposition stronghold.

Aleksandr Dvornikov was the man who ordered the bombing of the city in 2015.

“In Syria today, Russian and Syrian planes obliterated rebel held areas of Aleppo. Civilian rescue workers were among the targets.”

CBS News

We’ve seen a repeat of those tactics in the shelling of Ukrainian cities and suburbs – like the bombardment of Mariupol, a port city in the south of Donbas, which has been under siege for weeks now. 

So now Aleksadr Dvornikov is leading Russia’s renewed offensive in Donbas, we’ll probably see similar tactics used on other towns and cities in eastern Ukraine.

***

Aleksandr Dvornikov’s most recent experience also helps explain why he’s been chosen to lead this next phase of the war

“The man has been in charge since 2016 of the southern area of the Russian army. He works in an area he knows well. He’s been working in Crimea but also South Ossetia, Dagestan and Chechnya but he does know this area well, he’s been concentrating a lot on Donetsk and Luhansk in the past few years.”

France24 news

He’s been in control of Russia’s “Southern military division” – which covers Crimea and Donbas – for six years. 

And Russian-backed forces have been fighting a separatist conflict in Donbas since 2014. 

Which means Aleksandr Dvornikov will be familiar with the terrain and the key strategic targets that will help him achieve the ultimate aim of this offensive… to link up Donbas in the east with Russian held territory in Crimea to the south.

***

Russia was beset by problems in the first phase of the war, so President Putin will hope that under new leadership it will be more streamlined and effective.

But some military analysts think he won’t make much of a difference. This was retired US Army General Barry McCaffrey talking to NBC News.

“I wouldn’t expect too much out of him. He doesn’t have a joint headquarters. There won’t be air, land sea cooperation out of the Russians in the coming year. He doesn’t have, in essence, a staff to make this happen, to coordinate and integrate. He is in charge, clearly of conducting as rapidly as he can the land bridge to Crimea, and he’s probably been told ‘You’d better get Odessa so we can economically cut off Ukraine from the maritime frontier.’ But Russia is still in trouble.”

General Barry McCaffrey, NBC News

One view is that it doesn’t matter who is in charge at this point. After weeks of fighting, Russian forces are depleted. 

Their army has been chronically disorganised and morale is low and it will take a lot to turn that around. 

But Aleksandr Dvornikov’s appointment has come at a critical moment in the war. Russia is concentrating its efforts on one region – a region where it’s been fighting for years already.

It will take a lot of determination – and firepower – for the Ukrainians to repel the Russians from Donbas. 

And under Aleksandr Dvornikov, one thing is for sure: the offensive will be brutal.

Today’s story was written by Ella Hill and mixed by Imy Harper.