A notorious Russian general is told to revive a war in decline
The role of General Aleksander Dvornikov heralds a chilling new chapter in Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression.
Dvornikov, currently commander of the Southern Military District, was promoted to operational lord of the war-battered and demoralized Russian forces in Ukraine. What follows will not be pleasant and suggests that the Kremlin has given the green light to the ruinous and ruthless tactics the general has developed in Syria.
First commander of his task force in Syria in 2015, Dvornikov details his thinking in an article written three years later in the journal Russian military-industrial courier.* This bears a disturbing and disturbing similarity to the current situation in Ukraine.
The 60-year-old general, named a Hero of the Russian Federation for his work in Syria, pioneered the application of what Russian military theorists have dubbed ‘integrated force groupings’ – effectively a hybrid expeditionary force designed to crush popular rebellions around the world which was developed during his tenure during his year as commander of Syria from 2015 to 2016. Something similar has since been applied by Russia to support the tyrants in the Middle East (Libya), in Africa and preventively, even in Venezuela.
The general wrote that upon his arrival in Syria, things looked very bleak for Assad’s dictatorship. “By the summer of 2015, the Syrian armed forces had been completely exhausted, the personnel was demoralized, the officer corps was degraded, and the leaders of the armed forces showed extremely low efficiency in commanding their troops,” he said. he wrote.* “Faced with this situation, we were forced to bet on the most combat-capable elements of the popular militias.
The key was to identify those who were able and willing to fight (like the Lebanese terror group, Hezbollah) and employ them on the front line to work hand-in-hand with small Russian special forces units, military advisers and mercenaries, all under Russian command. These units could be brought together with regime loyalists, local military units, regime militias and paramilitary gangs, allied volunteers and mercenaries, to create an integrated group of forces.
Not only did this process provide motivated troops (which the Syrian conscripts did not), but it also allowed commanders to be much more alert to troop casualties. Those who fought were either volunteers or groups or regions where high combat casualties caused little repercussion. The fate of the 200-300 Wagner Group mercenaries and pro-Assadist fighters shot down in a reckless assault on a US position at a gas plant near the town of Deir al-Zour in 2018 tells the story of commanders willing to use men as cannon fodder. The Russian military had ignored repeated and explicit American warnings not to advance.
Dvornikov succinctly summed up his view of his Syrian campaign tactics. If we replace Syria with Ukraine and add indiscriminate brutality against civilians, which he failed to mention, it is possible to discern the likely contours of the impending Donbass operation. His third point – highly maneuverable combat activities – was not possible in the forested and swampy areas near kyiv, but will be well suited to the flat terrain of the Donbass (although this assumes that Dvornikov’s chain of command can execute these tactics in practice.) He wrote of:
- Strikes aimed at reducing the economic potential of the enemy, i.e. the destruction of businesses financing and otherwise aiding the enemy;
- “Active information and psychological targeting of activists in order to impact their moral-psychological state of mind”, i.e. targeted information and disinformation operations.
- “High-maneuver combat activities by autonomous groups of forces (troops)”.
There are obvious parallels with the current situation. Russia’s heavy combat forces were beaten by lighter and better motivated Ukrainian forces at the gates of kyiv, and pushed back across the border into Belarus. The units have suffered heavy casualties and have low combat morale. Under time pressure and the demands of the Kremlin to deliver a victory to show the Russian people (probably before Victory Day of Russia on May 9), the military command was forced to come up with a formula to regenerate its forces, and quick. But traditional sources of manpower are depleted and asking already battle-scarred units to return to the front line after a recent attack may be asking too much.
Russia’s new objective is clear: to conquer the entire Donbass region and occupy at least the Ukrainian coast of the Sea of Azov. The Russian military command must take drastic measures.
Enter Dvornikov. Its experience in creating and commanding new and motley, but very brutal, formations in Syria is both a signal of Russian desperation and its willingness to go much further – the use of cluster munitions. against crowds of civilians at Kramatorsk railway station on 8 April, killing at least 57 people, came just as the general was appointed and is likely to be a harbinger of events in the weeks to come.
The general will now seek to incorporate Russian mercenaries, in the first place the famous Wagner group, as well as local conscripts from Donbass and Crimea who can be used as cannon fodder against Ukrainian forces; local separatist militias; Syrian, Chechen and South Ossetian recruits (although some refused to fight), and even potentially prisoners and criminals from Donbass and Russia.
Ukrainian intelligence services reported on April 10 that Russia was conscripting previously exempted men from the occupied districts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and men were conscripting from the streets. The British Defense Intelligence reported the same day that Russia was also redouble your efforts recruit in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria.
He hopes these disparate units will integrate with the now rather reluctant Russian regular forces to bolster their numbers and morale. It is unlikely that Dvornikov’s integrated groupings of forces will ultimately prevail against the much more disciplined and professional forces of Ukraine. However, such a hybrid task force – effectively a suicide squad-like formation by design and function – will inevitably engage in even more extreme acts of terror and atrocities against the local population, as was the case in Syria during and after Dvornikov’s tenure.
In other words, they will be expected to kill civilians to crush the will of the Ukrainian people to keep fighting, while being completely expendable in the eyes of their own commanders.
Their work on the ground will be accompanied by indiscriminate shelling, Russia’s formidable artillery systems and manned and missile attacks – not unlike Russia’s Syrian tactics to reduce urban centers of resistance like Homs and Aleppo to rubble. , destroying all aspects of civilized life like water. and sanitation, food distribution, and hospital systems, all designed to undermine the morale of enemy combatants and citizens alike. It’s a grim prospect for much of eastern and southern Ukraine. Ukrainian leaders are already warning that the next chapter of the war will resemble World War II, with its massive mechanized assaults and artillery bombardments.
NATO and the United States could not be at a more critical point in their decision-making cycle as they consider the delivery of more advanced and heavier weapons to Ukraine. Western democracies must act quickly to prevent another round of mass murder and atrocities against civilians. The time has come; now is not the time to hesitate.
Mark Voyger is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Analysis (CEPA) Transatlantic Defense and Security Program. he is also Director of the Masters Program in Global Management and Associate Professor of International Security at the American University in Kyiv. It was Special Advisor for Russian and Eurasian Affairs to Commander US Army Europe in Germany from 2017 to 2018 and Cultural Advisor and Senior Russian Expert to NATO Allied Land Command in Izmir, Turkey (2013 – 2017.)
* General Dvornikov’s article in Russian military-industrial courier was originally translated by Mark Voyger