Russia’s first decentralised assault failed to produce concrete results for Moscow. As a result, Vladimir Putin is appointing Alexander Dvornikov to lead the second attack on eastern Ukraine.
Russia did not have a single general overseeing the first offensive on Ukraine, due to the decentralised approach it took to take over different parts of Ukrainian territory. This meant that different generals led campaigns in the south, east and north.
After failing to capture the capital Kiev, the second biggest city in eastern Ukraine, Kharkiv, and other major urban areas, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to appoint a new general, Alexander Dvornikov, with a clear mandate to oversee the second offensive, which is poised to start soon.
Now, both Ukrainians and everyone watching the Russian onslaught in horror wonder who Putin has appointed to lead Moscow’s second attempt, which will be concentrated in eastern Ukraine this time.
Interestingly, the 61-year old Russian general Dvornikov, born in Ussuriysk in the far eastern region Primorsky Krai, close to the Sea of Japan, will now lead Moscow’s assault on eastern Ukraine. His task is not easy, as Ukraine has become emboldened after challenging Putin’s army and stubbornly stopping the first operation.
Dvornikov’s hometown is very close to Vladivostok, a Pacific coastal city and the centre of Primorsky Krai. When Russian analysts want to point out Putin’s power ambitions across Eurasia, Vladivostok is a common reference point due to its location in the Pacific.
“The goal is for the sake of the peace of future generations of Ukrainians themselves, and the opportunity to finally build an open Eurasia — from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” said Dimitry Medvedev, the former Russian president, referring to Moscow’s Ukraine offensive and its reach across both Asia and Europe.
Due to his background and current assignment, Dvornikov, the leading general of Moscow’s southern district, might be the perfect example of Russia’s eastern and western character and ambitions. Dvornikov is also a typical Russian general who believes in the primacy of his mission over any other concerns, including civilian casualties.
Being “one of the heavy hitters of his generation,” if he succeeds, Dvornikov will be the best candidate to replace the current Russian army chief, Valery Gerasimov, according to Mark Galeotti, an academic at University College London, who is an expert on the Russian military.
Dvornikov will try to conduct a centralised assault against Ukraine, changing the first assault’s strategic approach. According to recent assessments, the lack of a central leadership “clearly hindered the cooperation of Russian forces” in the initial offensive.
Referring to the first offensive, Edward Erickson, a leading American military expert, said: “At the operational level, the Russians chose to fight a war giving the Ukrainians the advantage of ‘interior lines of communications’ while Russia is disadvantaged with ‘exterior lines of communications.’”
Interior and exterior lines refer to two critical strategies in the military doctrine. “Interior lines are those of an army centrally situated, acting against divided hostile forces; exterior lines, those adopted by divided armies acting against a centrally placed opponent,” according to J C Dundas, a prominent British expert.
What was Dvornikov’s current role?
In the first offensive, Dvornikov led Russian forces in eastern and southern Ukraine, where Moscow’s troops have made substantial gains, according to many experts.
While Russian forces stalled in northern Ukraine close to Kiev, they were able to make crucial progress in southern Ukraine in areas north of the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea under Dvornikov’s leadership. Also, Dvornikov is still alive, while many Russian generals, potentially as high as seven, were killed in action during the first offensive.
It’s crucial for Russia to capture areas between pro-Moscow enclaves in eastern Ukraine and Crimea to join the two regions and restrict Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.
Seeing Dvornikov’s relative progress in the Russian offensive, Putin might think tipping the most successful general to oversee the whole military effort could turn Moscow’s stalling assault into a success story by joining the breakaway territories with Crimea.
“He knows the areas in which he is serving, and the way he conducted combat operations in the past has caused him to receive many medals from Putin himself,” Mark Hertling, a retired lieutenant general who was the top commander of the US Army in Europe, told CNN.
While Dvornikov appears to be successful in southern Ukraine, where Mariupol, a crucial Black Sea port, is still disputed between the two sides, his forces could not capture Kharkiv, a city with a large Russian-speaking population, frustrating Moscow.
Dvornikov’s military experience
The Russian general has a lot of experience involving Moscow’s many bloody fights, from Chechnya’s Grozny War to the Syrian conflict, where he was the overall military leader backing the Assad regime against opposition forces, initially backed by Western states.
He is widely known as the “Butcher of Syria.” Some estimates show that at least 25,000 Syrian civilians were killed by Russian air strikes between September 2015, the beginning of the Russian intervention, and March 2022.
Many analysts believe that Russian interference on the side of the Syrian regime helped the Assad rule survive in the middle of the bloody civil war. As a result, despite allegations of brutality, he was rated as a successful general, turning Assad’s dimming chances into a survival story.
“He has also been a kind of executioner that we have seen prosecute these kinds of campaigns where there were often civilian attacks, civilian destruction and chaos on populations both in Syria and Grozny,” said Hertling. In Ukraine, there have already been thousands of civilian deaths as more than 4.5 million people have fled their country.
But in Syria, Dvornikov fought against fragmented opposition forces, who lacked central leadership. In Ukraine, he is facing a totally different enemy, a central military leadership in a Western-backed state, which can garner strong support from a wide spectrum of its population.
Also, Syria’s anti-Assad forces had no heavy weaponry, unlike the Ukrainians, who receive constant Western military supplies from NATO, ranging from air-defence systems to anti-tank Javelin missiles and drones.
Furthermore, despite heavy clashes, the Ukrainian air force is still operable against the Russian air force, denying Moscow full superiority over the skies, unlike in Syria, where the armed opposition had no warplanes.
But in the end, Putin expects Dvornikov to deliver a swift victory, at least in the east and in parts of southern Ukraine, before Russia’s Victory Day Parade on May 9, which marks Moscow’s victory over Nazi Germany during WWII, according to Hertling.
Putin sees May 9 as crucial because he is portraying the current offensive as a denazification process, claiming that Ukraine is under a pro-Nazi leadership and equating its past war against Nazi Germany with the current Ukraine offensive. Despite Russian claims, Ukraine's current president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish.
Now 28 days remain as the countdown begins for Russia's very well decorated war general.