DEVELOPMENT… The story will be updated as new information can be verified. Updated 3 times
WASHINGTON — Russia has brought in a new Ukrainian war commander to take centralized control of the next phase of the battle after its costly failures in the opening campaign and the carnage of Ukrainian civilians. US officials do not see a single man making a difference to Moscow’s prospects.
Russia turned to General Alexander Dvornikov, 60, one of Russia’s most experienced military officers and – according to US officials – a general with a record of brutality against civilians in Syria and other theaters of war. Until now, Russia had no central warlord on the ground.
The general’s appointment was confirmed by a senior US official who was not authorized to be identified and spoke on condition of anonymity.
But White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said “no appointment of a general can erase the fact that Russia has already faced strategic failure in Ukraine.”
“This general will be just another perpetrator of crimes and brutality against Ukrainian civilians,” Sullivan said. “And the United States, as I have said before, is determined to do everything we can to support the Ukrainians as they resist him and the forces he commands.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki echoed that thought. “The reports we are seeing of a change in military leadership and the appointment of a general responsible for the brutality and atrocities we have seen in Syria show that there is going to be a continuation of what we have already seen on the ground in Ukraine and that is what we expect,” she said.
The move to establish new battlefield leadership comes as Russia prepares for what is expected to be a significant and more focused push to expand Russian control in eastern and southern Ukraine, including the Donbass, and follows a failed opening bid in the north to conquer Kyiv, the capital.
Dvornikov rose to prominence while leading Russia’s group of forces in Syria, where Moscow waged a military campaign to bolster President Bashar Assad’s regime during a devastating civil war.
Dvornikov is a career military officer and has steadily risen through the ranks after starting as a platoon commander in 1982. He fought in the second war in Chechnya and held several high-level positions before being appointed in charge of Russian troops in Syria in 2015.
Under Dvornikov’s command, Russian forces in Syria were known to crush dissent in part by destroying towns, launching artillery and launching what were often crudely made barrel bombs in sustained attacks that moved millions of Syrian civilians. The United Nations says the decade-plus war has killed more than 350,000 people.
In 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Dvornikov the Hero of Russia Medal, one of the country’s highest honors. Dvornikov has been the commander of the Southern Military District since 2016.
Lieutenant-Colonel Fares al-Bayoush, a defector from the Syrian army, said on Sunday that although the situation in Syria is different from that in Ukraine because the Russian army was fighting insurgent groups and not the army Ukrainian professional, he expects a similar “scorched earth”. strategy.
Al-Bayoush said he believed the purpose of appointing Dvornikov as Ukraine’s war commander was to turn the war into “quick battles” in multiple places at the same time.
“I expected him to use the scorched earth policy that was used in Syria,” al-Bayoush said, referring to Russian-backed attacks in Syria in which towns and villages been subjected to long sieges while being subjected to heavy shelling which left many people behind. dead and caused widespread destruction to infrastructure and residential areas. “He has a very good experience in this policy.”
“This commander is a war criminal,” al-Bayoush said by phone from Turkey.
Since Russia joined the war in Syria in September 2015, Assad’s forces have taken control of most of the country after being on the verge of collapse. The Russian air force has carried out thousands of airstrikes since, helping Russian-backed Syrian troops take areas after fighters were forced to choose between an amnesty in exchange for dropping their weapons or being taken by bus to rebel-held areas.
The last major Russian-backed offensive in Syria lasted for several months, until March 2020, when a truce was reached between Russia and Turkey, who were backing the rival sides.
Sullivan said on Sunday that the Russian general had a history of brutality against civilians in Syria and “we can expect more of the same” in Ukraine. But he stressed that the American strategy remains the same in supporting Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Our policy is unequivocal: we will do everything we can to help Ukraine succeed,” Sullivan said. “Which means we have to keep giving them weapons so they can progress on the battlefield. And we must continue to provide them with military support and strong economic sanctions to improve their position, their posture at the negotiating table.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, meanwhile, spoke via videoconference on Sunday with a small number of Ukrainian soldiers in the United States who are now returning to their country. The group has been in the United States since last fall for military training and received training on new drones the United States sent to Ukraine last week for the war with Russia.
Austin thanked members of the Ukrainian troops for their courage and service and pledged continued U.S. support and security assistance, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. Kirby said the small group received advanced tactical training, including on Switchblade armed kamakazi drones, as well as instruction in patrol boat operations, communications and maintenance.
In an interview on Saturday with The Associated Press, Zelenskyy acknowledged that despite his hopes for peace, he must be “realistic” about the prospects for a quick resolution given that negotiations have so far been limited to talks. low level which does not include Putin.
Zelenskyy renewed his call for more weapons ahead of an expected increase in fighting in the east of the country. He said, frustrated with arms supplies from the United States and other Western countries, “of course it’s not enough.”
Sullivan spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” PSAKI spoke on “Fox News Sunday”.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed to this report.