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Russian General Alexander Dvornikov became, on Sunday, the first chief of all the armed forces engaged in Ukraine. This appointment of a soldier known for having led the Russian strategy of intensive bombing in Syria raises fears of an intensification of abuses against civilians.
From the suburbs of Grozny in Chechnya to the heart of Aleppo in Syria, he has a sulphurous reputation as a soldier ready to do anything to achieve his objectives. Some, like US general and former CIA chief David Petraeus, have even dubbed him the “butcher of Syria” for his leading role during the Russian military campaign in Syria. From now on, General Alexander Dvornikov will deal with the war in Ukraine.
This soldier, highly respected by Vladimir Putin and just as feared by his enemies, was appointed on Sunday April 10 to coordinate operations in Ukraine. This assumption of duty was not officially announced by Moscow, but it was confirmed to several Anglo-Saxon media by American military sources.
The man of difficult situations
This is the first time since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24 that the entire armed forces find themselves led by a single commander, notes the Washington Post. Previously, there was a general for each front (north, south and east), points out the Institute for the Study of War, an influential American military analysis blog.
This reorganization should make it possible to “resolve the communication problems between the troops, which represented one of the weaknesses of the Russian military operation in Ukraine”, believe the specialists of the Institute for the Study of War.
The choice of Alexander Dvornikov to take over operations in the field can be justified from a purely geographical point of view. This general manages, in fact, the southern district of the Russian army on which depend, among others, the Crimea and, above all, the Donbass.
Precisely, after having failed to take the capital kyiv, the Russian forces withdrew in order to concentrate on the new priority of the Russian general staff: “to secure” the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass, whose independence had been recognized by Moscow three days before the invasion of Ukraine.
Alexander Dvornikov is therefore supposed to know the ground better than anyone. But this 60-year-old general also enjoys a reputation as a man of difficult situations and a “real heavyweight in the army”, underlines Mark Galeotti, specialist in Russian military issues, interviewed by the Washington Post.
A reputation acquired during the war in Syria. Previously, Alexander Dvornikov had pursued a serious military career but without any particular feats of arms. He attended “all the good training schools and was assigned to both infantry divisions and the air force”, recalls the Guardian.
Everything changes in 2015, when Alexander Dvornikov becomes the first head of the Russian combined forces in Syria. At the time, the power of Bashar al-Assad, one of Vladimir Putin’s main allies in the region, seemed to be wavering under the joint blows of the opposition and the jihadists of the Islamic State organization, and the opposition to the power in place.
It was Alexander Dvornikov who concocted and then applied the strategy of intensive bombing of several Syrian cities. An approach which, under the guise of targeting Islamist fighters, also weakens the positions of the anti-Assad rebels.
An intensification of indiscriminate bombardments?
This strategy, which involved the construction of an ex nihilo air base at Hmeimim, in the west of the country, proves to Moscow that “Alexander Dvornikov knows how to adapt to new situations”, emphasizes Mark Galeotti.
It does so without too much regard for the civilian population. The Russian air force does not hesitate to repeatedly bomb buildings such as hospitals or schools, installing a climate of terror in the targeted Syrian cities. These indiscriminate strikes earned him, at the very least, a reputation as a soldier who will stop at nothing to achieve his ends, underlines The Guardian.
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This is also where he got the nickname “butcher of Syria”. This instrumentalization of the lives of civilian populations does not seem to have bothered Vladimir Putin. On the contrary, the Russian president recalled his general from Syria in March 2016 to offer him the southern district of the Russian army – one of the most important in the country, in charge in particular of Crimea, Ukraine and the Chechnya – and award him the Hero of the Russian Federation medal, one of the most prestigious.
“He’s the brute that Vladimir Putin calls when he wants to raze a city like Aleppo. He is one of the worst of the worst in the Russian army,” said James Stavridis, a former American admiral interviewed by NBC.
For this retired soldier, the appointment of Alexander Dvornikov at the head of all the forces engaged in Ukraine suggests that other atrocities against civilians are to be expected. He would thus have the same road map as in Syria: to use all possible means to turn around a difficult military situation.
“Alexander Dvornikov’s CV – which includes brutality against civilians – makes me think that we should expect more abuses to come in Ukraine,” said Jake Sullivan, national security adviser. of the United States, during an interview granted to the program “Face the Nation” of CBS.
Especially since the Kremlin wants results quickly. Vladimir Putin would like to be able to claim victory before May 9, the date of the great military parade in Moscow in memory of the end of the Second World War.