Vinnytsia, Ukraine – “He’s been called ‘butcher’ since the days of the Second Chechen War, then in Aleppo in Syria,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, the former deputy chief of Ukraine’s general staff of armed forces, said of Aleksandr Dvornikov.
Recently reported to have been appointed as the supreme commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, Dvornikov commanded a Russian motor rifle division that stormed Grozny, the capital of the de-facto independent southern Russian province of Chechnya, in late 1999 and early 2000.
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Then, Russian forces barraged and bombarded the city before moving in small infantry groups that allegedly shot at anyone they saw.
Rocket artillery, banned cluster bombs and cruise missiles killed thousands of civilians and razed Grozny to the ground.
The city fell on February 6, 2000, boosting the approval ratings of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was elected president less than a month later.
These days, observers say Moscow appears to be using a similar tactic in the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Ukrainian officials accuse Russia of killing tens of thousands of civilians and damaging or destroying almost every building there.
In 2015, Putin put Dvornikov at the helm of Russia’s forces in war-torn Syria.
Dvornikov saved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s administration from crumbling and took over the battle for Aleppo, an opposition stronghold.
He seems to have used the Grozny tactics, with tens of thousands of Syrians being killed and the historic city being turned into smouldering ruins.
“Nothing stops him. He sticks to the old Soviet and then Russian approach – if there are forces, they have to be concentrated and used to destroy everything,” Romanenko said.
“We have seen the results in Aleppo,” he said.
Dvornikov saw the results differently.
“The military action of the Russian group of armed forces radically changed the situation in Syria in five and a half months. The possible disintegration of Syria has been thwarted,” he told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta state-published daily in a rare interview in March 2016.
Days earlier, Putin pinned a Hero of Russia medal, one of Russia’s highest awards, on Dvornikov in the Kremlin.
The stratagem, however, does not seem to be working in northern and central Ukraine.
There, forested terrain, daring ambushes and attacks of Ukrainian forces, as well as poor logistics and low morale, thwarted the Russians’ advance towards Kyiv, Romanenko said.
They suffered heavy, humiliating losses and withdrew from the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy regions in early April.
But southern Ukraine is different as the landscapes are dominated by steppes, and Moscow seems to be using the same tactics yet again, Romanenko said.
Backing the rebels
In 2016, two years after Kremlin-backed separatists took up arms against Ukraine in the southeastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin put Dvornikov in charge of Russia’s Southern Military District.
This post includes annexed Crimea and Russian bases in the separatist Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – and boasts thousands of battle-tested service members.
Even though Moscow had vehemently denied sending troops to Ukraine at the time, officials in Kyiv, Western intelligence and media reports unveiled the presence of Russian servicemen and “consultants” in the separatist provinces.
The war became Europe’s hottest armed conflict, killing more than 13,000 people and uprooting millions of Ukrainians since 2014.
By the time Dvornikov moved to his new headquarters in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, the war’s active phase was over as it turned into a trench conflict.
Dvornikov still acquired a profound knowledge of Ukraine and was responsible for forming the Eighth Guards Combined Army, a reincarnation of the WWII military force.
It was partially stationed in the rebel Ukrainian regions known collectively as Donbas, said Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based military analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC.
“Therefore, he’s known the military theatre in eastern Ukraine for a long time,” Luzin told Al Jazeera.
Dvornikov is said to have masterminded the 2019 incident in the Sea of Azov, a shallow body of water northeast of annexed Crimea, when Russian ships blocked and seized three Ukrainian navy ships that tried to enter the sea. Moscow captured 24 Ukrainian sailors who were ultimately held in Russia for almost 10 months.
As a result, the European Union blacklisted Dvornikov and seven other Russian generals and officials in 2019.
While punished by Western powers, he earned brownie points with Putin by conducting a series of vast and impressive military drills.
He led the gigantic Caucasus 2020 military practice next to Ukraine’s border. The drills involved tens of thousands of troops from Russia and former Soviet republics and were held in some 30 locations in Russia, annexed Crimea, and Armenia.
They showcased the use of “mobile echelons”, a new way of coordinating the forces on the ground, in the air and at sea.
Putin arrived with pomp in the Volga region town of Kapustin Yar to observe the drills’ final part, and Dvornikov told him that the forces “proved our readiness for battle”.
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry prophetically warned that the drills aimed to create a group of Russian forces that would invade Ukraine.
In March and April of 2021, Dvornikov’s military district became the focal point of another show of force.
The Kremlin amassed tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s border, in Moscow-friendly Belarus and annexed Crimea – a showdown that paved the way for Putin’s first face-to-face meeting with United States President Joe Biden.
However, Ukraine and the West ignored a list of Russian demands that included a ban on Kyiv’s membership in NATO and a limit to the presence of NATO’s troops in Eastern Europe, Soviet Moscow’s former stomping grounds.
So, Putin started an invasion to topple the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and to, in his words, “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
But he hadn’t named a single commander to lead the charge – until Monday’s appointment of Dvornikov, according to White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Dvornikov has already led the offensive around Donbas and in southern provinces, where Russia seized the only large urban centre, Kherson, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, DC.
The appointment marks Moscow’s attempt to rid itself of its Achilles heel in the war – the coherent, centralised management of its forces on the ground, analyst Luzin said.
“As the most advanced general in this area, Dvornikov was appointed to rid of the most serious problems in the light of the new attempt to advance in eastern Ukraine,” he told Al Jazeera.
Other observers, however, dismiss Dvornikov’s pedigree as he spent most of his career managing rear military units in times of peace.
“This is the problem of Russia’s top brass – they haven’t waged serious wars in a long time that covered the entire nation, not a local ‘special operation’,” as the Kremlin dubs its invasion of Ukraine, said Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Russia researcher with Germany’s Bremen University.
“That’s why I don’t think that his appointment will significantly change anything,” he told Al Jazeera.