Alexander Dvornikov, the Russian general tapped to lead the country’s struggling forces in Ukraine, comes to the post with a controversial legacy of civilian deaths and alleged violations of humanitarian law.
His reputation stems from his command of Russian troops in support of the Syrian government in a brutal civil war — Dvornikov also knows a thing or two about inheriting a military mess.
It was 2015, five years after the Arab Spring. Syria was overrun by anti-government Islamist forces, including the Islamic State, which claimed the city of Raqqa as the head of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
The Syrian government controlled just 30 per cent of the country.
Six months later, Gen. Dvornikov was wearing the gold star that marked him as a Hero of the Russian Federation, the country’s highest honor — one that critics say is stained with civilian blood.
But the 61-year-old general from the far east town of Ussuriysk, 100 kilometers north of Vladivostok, was in a celebratory mood when he was interviewed in March 2016 by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a government-run newspaper.
“The actions of the Russian group over the course of five and a half months have radically changed the situation in Syria,” he told his interviewer.
The terrorist groups had been routed, put on the defensive and forced to give up control of 10,000 square kilometers. What’s more, he boasted, 2,000 Russian Islamists who had gone to fight in Syria have also been killed, giving an unexpected boost to Russia’s domestic security situation.
The lightning-quick turnaround is something that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants — and needs — to replicate in Ukraine. An initial invasion force was defeated in its initial attempts to seize Kyiv, the capital, and is said to be regrouping for an imminent campaign to take a huge swath of eastern Ukraine.
Western officials and human-rights groups warn that Russian success could come with a murderous toll.
“We can certainly say by what we’ve seen in the past that we are probably turning another page in the same book of Russian brutality,” said John Kirby, a US Defense Department spokesman told reporters Monday.
Amnesty International offered a damning impression of Dvornikov’s contribution to the Syrian conflict.
His mission began on Sep. 30, 2015, with an airstrike that the Russian Defense Ministry said took out Islamic State command centers in Homs, north of Damascus. Amnesty found that dozens of civilians were killed in the operation.
A December 2015 report went further. The study of Russian airstrikes between September and December of that year found that Russia was responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths — the strikes had hit residential areas and medical facilities which had no military purposes, and had demonstrated “serious failures to respect international humanitarian law. ”
On the morning of Nov. 29, 2015, three Russian missiles struck a produce market in Idlib, killing 49 civilians. One woman was interviewed by human-rights groups besides a row of dead bodies.
“Her husband and three children had just been killed and the body parts of her children were in bags,” the Amnesty report noted.
It was for such a legacy that retired American Gen. David Petraeus, speaking on CNN last weekend, referred to Dvornikov as “The Butcher of Syria.”
“He and other senior Russian leaders have shown in the past … their disregard for avoiding civilian harm, their utter disregard for the laws of war and the brutality with which they conduct and prosecute their operations,” said Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson.
“Sadly, we can all expect those same brutal tactics, that the same disregard for civilian life and civilian infrastructure will now continue as they focus in a more geographically confined area in the Donbas.”
Among the first operations being attributed to Dvornikov is the airstrike at a train station in the eastern town of Kramatorsk on Friday morning that killed 50 people, many of them reportedly trying to flee to the relative safety of western Ukraine.
The Institute for the Study of War, which publishes daily tracking reports on the progress of the Ukraine conflict, has noted that Russian forces have fully retreated from the area around Kyiv and are being redeployed to Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine.
Other troops, vehicles and artillery are massing in the Russian border regions of Belgorod, Voronezh and Kursk in advance of the battle for Donbas.
“We think it will be a new wave of this war,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview broadcast Sunday. “We do not know how much Russian weaponry there will be, but we understand that it is many times more than it is now.”
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