Putin has tasked Gen. Alexander Dvornikov with salvaging his faltering Ukraine war, based on the officer’s horrific record in Syria. The targeting of civilians at a railway station last Friday may be a sign of things to come.

Russian President Putin and colonel-general Alexander Dvornikov in Moscow in 2016

The rite of passage of Gen. Alexander Dvornikov was a bloody affair.

A Russian missile attack last Friday killed more than 50 civilians and injured some 300 at a railway station in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine. U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, outed the 60-year-old general as the new supreme commander of Russian forces in the Ukrainian war theater. They accused him of masterminding the attack, which used the same brutal military methods he employed in Syria during its civil war.

A former senior Israeli military official, who closely studied the Russian general’s strategy and tactics in Syria, says Dvornikov had shown determination and some military sophistication in the Syrian arena. However, he also proved to be a typical product of the aging, rigid and bureaucratic machine of the Russian army. “I’m not sure he will be the savior of the faltering Russian campaign in Ukraine,” the official says.

Alexander (aka Aleksander) Vladimirovich Dvornikov was born in Ussuriysk in August 1961, joining the Soviet army at age 17. His early military experience as a young, mid-ranking officer was shaped by the traumatic “twilight” years between the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and emergence of the Russian Federation in the early ’90s.

After serving in units in the Far East, he graduated from the prestigious Frunze Military Academy. He then served and advanced in the ground forces, commanding mobile armored and tank formations. He had little real combat experience until, in September 2015, he was sent to lead Russian forces and save the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Russian Gen. Alexander Dvornikov being presented with an award by President Vladimir Putin for his services in Syria, in 2016. Credit: Vadim Savitsky / Mil.ru

The Russian contingent was relatively small – no more than a few thousand strong, – but Dvornikov cleverly adapted it to the Syrian arena.

According to the Israeli military official, the general’s strategy was based on using Russian air superiority to indiscriminately bomb urban centers. The aim was to cause as much damage as possible, and to terrorize civilians and sow fear among the rebel groups. Dvornikov and his senior subordinates didn’t hesitate to target hospitals, schools and humanitarian sites.

Dvornikov also assigned Russian liaison officers and advisers to train the Syrian, Iranian, Hezbollah and pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias, and to unleash them into brutal and atrocious battles. He also sent in the mercenaries of the notorious Wagner Group. These methods combined would eventually lead to victory for Assad.

At the same time, the senior Israeli military official observes, the Russian general and his senior staff were sensible enough not to overstretch Russia’s limited capabilities by engaging in unnecessary clashes with the Israel Air Force and Turkish army.

Within a year of deployment, Assad’s regime was stabilized and Dvornikov returned in triumph to Russia with decorations and praise from President Vladimir Putin. He was honored for his services in 2016 as a “hero of the Russian Federation.”

Afterward, he mainly served in the Donbas region in eastern and southern Ukraine – areas that were occupied by Russia since its invasion in the spring of 2014.

New direction

By appointing Dvornikov, Putin has inadvertently admitted the failure of his initial military campaign in Ukraine. The lack of a cohesive command is partially responsible for Russia’s inability to conquer the capital, Kyiv. He was one of three or four commanders in charge of the invasion who found themselves performing with no clear military hierarchy. Putin’s decision may indicate the direction in which he wishes to take the war.

Bodies are covered with plastic sheets after a Russian rocket attack killed at least 50 people last Friday at a train station in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine.

In other words, Putin has abandoned his hope of taking over, blitzkrieg style, the whole of Ukraine. He is now ready to settle for carving up large chunks of the country that border Russia, especially in the east and south, in order to establish territorial corridors.

Putin believes and hopes his leading general will repeat his successes in Syria. But the Israeli official notes that the tactical differences that may challenge Dvornikov’s experience: Unlike in Syria, he cannot base his campaign on air superiority; nor can he rely on significant proxies on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, the Syria and Donbas experiences may lead Dvornikov to conclude that a prolonged campaign of attrition against civilians, taken from the Syrian playbook – using extensive firepower of missiles, rockets, artillery shells and air bombardment – can over time achieve Putin’s goals, even without very advanced military technology like the West and Israel have.

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