[LONDON] Russia has appointed a new commander for its operations in Ukraine as it refocuses its war effort in the east, having failed to secure territory around the capital, Kyiv.
General Alexander Dvornikov, commander of the Southern Military District, will now lead Russian troops on the ground, according to Western security officials and diplomats with knowledge of the change. The Kremlin has not announced the appointment.
Dvornikov, 60, has held several senior positions in the Russian military, including army commander of the Far Eastern Military District. He notably oversaw Moscow's forces in Syria in 2015 and 2016, where they fought alongside Syrian government troops in a conflict where President Bashar al-Assad was accused of using chemical weapons against his own people.
With the war in its seventh week, Russia has largely withdrawn its forces from the north after its troops faced fierce resistance and became bogged down outside Kyiv. Moscow also lost numerous tanks and aircraft due to missile attacks by Ukraine.
Now, Moscow is focused on the eastern Donbas regions and taking towns and cities in the Black Sea area, including Mariupol, which has been under siege for weeks already. Doing so would allow it to create a land bridge between Crimea, which it annexed in 2014 and Russia.
Dvornikov had been responsible so far for operations in the south and east of Ukraine, according to the Institute for the Study of War. The lack of a single overall commander had "clearly hindered the cooperation of Russian forces", it said in a report dated Apr 9.
Despite a more simplified structure, Russia will probably continue to struggle with its command and control arrangements, the institute added. Most of the reinforcements headed to Donbas are drawn from other military districts than those headed by Dvornikov, it said.
"No appointment of any general can erase the fact that Russia has already faced a strategic failure in Ukraine," US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Sunday on CNN's State of the Union.
"It doesn't matter which general President Putin tries to appoint," he said. "But, as you noted, this particular general has a resume that includes brutality against civilians in other theatres, in Syria. And we can expect more of the same in this theatre."
Ukraine, the US and other nations have accused Russian troops of committing war crimes in towns they occupied in the north, including Bucha, where mass graves were discovered of civilians as Russian forces withdrew.
US General David Petraeus, a former commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan who headed the Central Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama, told CNN on Sunday the more streamlined command structure reflected Russia's desire to have something to claim as a win by May 9, its World War II victory day.
Petraeus also said more civilians were likely to be targeted. "The Russians were known in Syria basically for - quote - 'depopulating' areas. That's what they did to Aleppo. That's what they did to other areas. And I think we can expect that," he said. BLOOMBERG