Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed a new general to direct the war in Ukraine as his military shifts plans after a failure to take Kyiv, according to a US official and a European official.
The officials told CNN Army General Alexander Dvornikov, commander of Russia’s Southern Military District, has been named theatre commander of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.
“It speaks to a Russian acknowledgement that it is going extremely badly and they need to do something differently,” the European official said.
A new theatre commander with extensive combat experience could bring a level of coordination to an assault now expected to focus on the Donbas region, instead of multiple fronts.
Dvornikov, 60, was the first commander of Russia’s military operations in Syria, after Putin sent troops there in September 2015 to back the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. During Dvornikov’s command in Syria from September 2015 to June 2016, Russian aircraft backed the Assad regime and its allies as they laid siege to rebel-held eastern Aleppo, bombarding densely populated neighbourhoods and causing major civilian casualties. The city fell to Syrian government forces in December 2016.
Russian forces have used a similarly heavy-handed approach in parts of Ukraine, striking residential buildings in major cities and demolishing much of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
“We will see how effective that proves to be,” the European official said. “The Russian doctrine, the Russian tactics remain pretty much as they’ve been since Afghanistan.”
“They do things in the same old way,” the official added.
Military analysts and US officials familiar with intelligence assessments have speculated Russia’s generals have a goal of presenting Putin with some tangible battlefield progress ahead of Victory Day on May 9, when Russia observes the defeat of Nazi Germany and traditionally marks the occasion with a parade in Moscow’s Red Square.
The European official described it as a “self-imposed deadline,” that could lead the Russians to make additional mistakes.
But it could also potentially lead Russian forces to commit more atrocities, as allegedly happened in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha while under Russian occupation. “The stench of these war crimes is going to hang over these Russian armed forces for many years,” the official said.
Former UK ambassador to Russia Sir Roderic Lyne told Sky News on Saturday Moscow has appointed a new general with a “pretty savage track record in Syria to try to at least gain some territory in Donetsk that Putin could present as a victory.”
Assigning a new overall commander for Russia’s war in Ukraine may be an attempt to create a more cohesive strategy. CNN previously reported that Russia had no theatre-wide commander for Ukraine operations, meaning units from different Russian military districts have been operating without coordination and sometimes at cross purposes, according to two US defence officials.
The US has previously assessed Putin would likely name a general whose forces have been operating in Ukraine’s south because that is where the Russians have taken and held more territory, as opposed to the Russian bid to encircle Kyiv and cities in northern Ukraine, an effort that recently ended with a withdrawal.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Friday Russian forces had completed their withdrawal from Ukraine’s northern Sumy region, while continuing a buildup of forces in the country’s east.