The ‘Butcher of Syria’ Now Leads Russia’s Troops in Ukraine

There is apparently a new commander for Russia’s war in Ukraine: Aleksandr Vladimirovich Dvornikov. He is a relatively well-known Russian general who has commanded troops in Chechnya. He is best known for having overall command of Russian troops in Syria during the early years of Russia’s intervention there. Sources for the Guardian describe Dvornikov as “old school” and a “blood and soil nationalist” who has few qualms about civilian deaths. In fact, he’s been labeled the “Butcher of Syria.” He is on sanctions lists because of his command there and some of his activities in Ukraine. Retired U.S. Lt. General Mark Hertling said that the Kremlin would press Dvornikov to achieve a victory in Ukraine by May 9, “Victory Day.” This is the celebration of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II and so has a massive significance in Russia, especially while Russia is in the process of “denazifying” Ukraine, as Putin claims. On the other hand, retired U.S. Adm. James Stavridis told NBC: “The appointment of this new general indicates Vladimir Putin’s intent to continue this conflict for months, if not years.”

Without some kind of inside information, it is probably not wise to speculate too much on what Dvornikov’s special orders are or how he will change the way Russia is waging its war on Ukraine. According to some reports, up until this point there has been no overall Russian military commander for their Ukraine invasion! This is yet another piece of evidence of Russia’s poor planning for war and expectation that Ukraine would collapse quickly. (Why would you need an overall commander just to collect surrenders?) So, at least, a unified command in Ukraine may improve Russia’s ability to wage war there.

Dvornikov is probably a very competent and creative general, and he may not do anything predictable or predicated on his previous strategies. As the Institute for the Study of War put it in one of its recent bulletins: “General Alexander Dvornikov is the natural choice to take overall command of Russian operations in Ukraine. There is no reason to suppose Dvornikov was selected for any particular skills or experience, nor is there reason to think the conduct of the Russian war effort will materially change more than it was already changing due to the Russian abandonment of northeastern Ukraine and focus on the east.” Also, talk about how his selection as commander presages “more brutality” does not make that much sense as Russian troops and leaders already appeared set on getting maximally brutal with Ukraine. 

This is not to dismiss any speculation or informed opining about Dvornikov. If nothing else, we might get some insight into how Putin views the war based on who he chose as a commander, and Dvornikov does not seem to be the kind of person one makes a commander if one is looking for a rapid negotiated peace. Dvornikov may have given us some direct insight into his thinking when he penned a 2018 article for the Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, which translates to the Military-Industrial Courier, a weekly magazine reporting on Russian military affairs and related topics. Dvornikov wrote (or had ghostwritten) the article titled “The Staff for New Wars” when he was coming off of his successful command of Putin’s Syria campaign. 

Most of Dvornikov’s article is given to discussion about specifics about the fight in Syria. These parts are mostly irrelevant, as Russia’s campaign in Syria was/is totally different from the war Russia is currently waging on Ukraine. What is interesting and relevant is the passage where Dvornikov describes the enemy that he believes he was fighting. NATO countries, he says, are mastering “hybrid warfare,” which is a “new type of war” that is accompanied by a blurring of the “boundaries between the states of war and peace …”

Now the aggressor state achieves geopolitical goals through a set of non-military measures, which in some cases are much more effective than military ones. The main task is not the physical destruction of the enemy, but the enemy’s complete submission to his [the aggressors] will. 

In Yugoslavia, Iraq in 2003, Libya, Tunis, Syria, Ukraine. … Everywhere we can see almost the same scenario. In contrast with the conflicts of the previous century, where the ground units of the aggressor got directly involved in ground operations, the emphasis [now] is on achieving goals with the help of brilliantly camouflaged integrated formations. 

Such groups are created on the basis of local resources… by organizing irregular troops and peoples’ militia into units capable of uniting into larger formations with the support and leadership of the special operations forces or private military companies of other states. Along with the involvement of the ground forces of states, foreign air forces, navies, and other groupings of troops, civilians and NGOs to perform tasks in strategic (operational) directions within a single informational and intelligence space. 

For example: ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, Kurdish self-defense units, the Iraqi people’s militia, Libyan Dawn and the Zintan Brigades, the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army in Yugoslavia, the “Right Sector” units and the “Asker” Crimean Tatar battalion in Ukraine, Private military companies, and others. At the same time, there is the seizure of dominance in the air and at sea, strikes with cruise missiles are carried out by the regular navies and air forces of the aggressor state in created no-fly zones, which as a rule are created under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis management. As a result, an ‘obedient’ government is installed in the state, the country is fragmented, chaos and lawlessness are sown, control over resources is established, and the military bases of the aggressor are placed on this territory.”

Readers who are familiar with contemporary Russian propaganda will recognize many common themes here, especially the idea that the U.S. and its NATO allies are engaged in some kind of plan (or series of plans) to sow chaos in order to dominate the world and seize resources. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 is conflated with the interventions in Libya and Yugoslavia and the revolutions in Syria, Tunisia, and Ukraine. Dvornikov (and he is not alone) sees Russia as fighting a long-term defensive conflict against a massively influential power, causing or turning almost all major world events to its advantage all while operating under ingenious camouflage. The battle in Ukraine is just one part in this evil global offensive. 

Americans with even a passing experience with how the U.S. government actually operates will not recognize this image. To attempt a U.S. analogy, Putin putting Dvornikov in command in Ukraine is like the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam being an outspoken member of the John Birch Society. 

That analogy is not quite right, though. For one thing, the John Birch Society was at the very least correct that there was a Communist attempt to conquer the world, while there is no massive U.S. plan to dominate the world and seize resources using color revolutions, NGOs, etc. For another thing, the methods of “hybrid war” Dvornikov describes here are somewhat similar to Russia’s early attempts to wage war on Ukraine in 2014: informational attacks, informal groups gathered around special forces and acting under the command of the Russian army, use of NGOs and civic organizations (even religious groups), all as part of an attempt to install an obedient government in Ukraine and establish military bases there. 

Add Dvornikov’s essay to a pile of evidence that Russia’s (that is, Putin’s and his cronies’) motives in Ukraine are not mysterious or unfathomable or made from sophisticated calculations we close-minded Westerners cannot or will not understand. Rather than a “rational” Russia backed into a corner by “aggressive” NATO expansion or something it is a story we have seen many times before, especially during the 20th century: The rulers of a powerful nation are in the thrall of some ideas that are not just bad, they are garbage. These garbage ideas have terrible real-world consequences. No amount of concessions or persuasion will get to these leaders in time to stop the disaster growing larger and larger—they must be stopped primarily by brave men with guns. Fortunately this time there is a whole nation that seems to have a surplus of brave men who are on the frontlines of the fight against these destructive but cunning men. 

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