The two top commanders of Russian and Ukrainian forces are set to go head-to-head in the spiraling conflict in Ukraine that has become Europe’s most destructive and deadly since World War II.
Last week, in hopes of rescuing a flagging seven-week-old invasion, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, named a veteran officer, General Alexander Dvornikov, to replace his military leadership in Ukraine.
Ten months earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, anticipating the frontal assault to come, had appointed General Valeriy Zaluzhny, a product of the country’s post-Soviet swing to the West, to command Ukrainian forces in a desperate defense against a more powerful foe.
The outcome of this duel will not only decide Ukraine’s future as a sovereign state but also will frame international relations in Europe and beyond for decades to come. Russia apparently desires to annex Ukraine while taking center stage in world relations by force.
By conquering Ukraine, Putin means to show that the West’s military and economic dominance is at an end. The United States and Europe, by backing an overmatched proxy, are trying to shore up a post-Soviet New World Order led by liberal democracies. Ukraine wants to be one of them.
Even the war-making philosophies of the two commanding generals reflect competing views of politics: Russia’s military, like its politics, remains highly centralized, while Ukraine’s newly-minted force is flexible, in the Western style.
Militarily, it is also a kind of contest between a bludgeoning Russian Goliath and an agile Ukrainian David.
Dvornikov, 60, operates a hammering style of armed assault characterized by bombardments from afar, inevitably leading to mass material destruction and indifference to civilian deaths. Zaluzhny favors hit-and-run attacks on ponderous convoys. They are styles that reflect disparate paths to command.
Dvornikov led a platoon in the Second Chechen War, which spanned a decade after 1999. The breakaway province’s revolt presented a challenge beyond Moscow’s loss of dominance in Eastern Europe to a possible break-up of pre-Soviet Russia itself. Putin took charge of Russia on New Year’s Eve 1999 and set out to obliterate that possibility.
Looking back, it’s clear that what occurred in the Chechen war was a prelude to the current conflict: sieges to roust out rebels from urban areas and massive bombing. In particular, Russia bombarded and shelled Grozny, the capital, from October 1999 until rebel remnants fled in February 2000.
Though the Russians occasionally opened safe-exit corridors to permit civilians to leave, they also subjected them to shelling and gunfire. Shortages of food not only hindered rebel operations but also left civilians bereft. Roundups and disappearances of suspected rebels and continual, low-key fighting marked the next decade.
As Ukrainians have done in several cities, Chechen fighters barricaded Grozny with sandbags and clutter to blunt the Russian advances until retreating into the mountains or neighboring provinces.
Dvornikov rose to prominence and notoriety for his command of Russian forces in Syria to help the government of Bashar al-Assad defeat Islamist and nationalist rebels trying to topple it. Putin awarded him a Hero of the Russian Federation medal for his service.
Some Syrians labeled him a “butcher” for the relentless Russian bombing of Aleppo, the country’s second-largest city, in 2016. Russian jets dropped so-called “bunker-busting bombs” that brought down apartment buildings and set loose indiscriminate flocks of cluster bombs, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Russians bombed a hospital in Aleppo four times, human rights groups said.
“Airstrikes often appeared to be recklessly indiscriminate, deliberately targeted at least one medical facility, and included the use of indiscriminate weapons,” HRW said about Aleppo.
Similar accusations have been made about Russia’s tactics in Ukraine. If Dvornikov follows his Syrian playbook, more assaults on civilians are expected. He is also likely to follow a playbook written for Aleppo: deny atrocities – or, failing to convince, say the opposing army did it.
In Syria, Russia’s alliance included not only the Syrian army but also Iranian troops and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia. It triumphed and al-Assad remains in power.
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is fundamentally different – Putin has invaded a sovereign country and involved his own troops in ground combat. NATO and the European Union are flooding Ukraine with weaponry while leaving the combat heavy lifting to fighters under the command of Valeriy Zaluzhny.
The Ukrainian general
Unlike his Russian foe, Zaluzhny, 48, grew into adulthood after Soviet control of Ukraine ended. Following Russia’s lightning 2014 takeover of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, he and other Ukrainian military officers turned to NATO training.
The teaching led him to value flexible field commanders – captains, lieutenants and sergeants – who not only carry out battle plans but also take initiative.
“We want to move away from maps, from writing battle orders of, say, 1943,” he told the Ukrainian military publication Army Inform in an interview two years ago. “I can use different methods to achieve a goal.”
Flexibility conveniently coincided with easier use of portable shoulder-fired Javelin missiles to hit tanks, armored vehicles and artillery; Stinger anti-aircraft weapons; and, in the air, armed drones that fire from afar. NATO supplied them. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Poland and Lithuania trained the Ukrainians in their use.
Zaluzhny thinks that new Ukrainian generations are superior even to his own and are comfortable with high-tech weaponry.
“These are completely different people, not like us when we were lieutenants,” he said. “These are new sprouts that will completely change the army in five years. Almost everyone knows a foreign language well, works well with gadgets, [and is] well-read.”
So far in this war, advantage Zaluzhny. The war was supposed to be over by now. Even the battered eastern port of Mariupol and the hard-hit northern border city of Kharkiv remain out of Russian control. Russia pulled its forces away from Kiev, the capital and the presumably desired war trophy, to head south.
Dvornikov apparently wants to concentrate his forces instead of spreading them out in the south, east and north, as originally deployed. This maneuver, if the Ukrainians follow, would make Zaluzhny’s forces tighter targets for Russian artillery and aerial bombs and missiles.
David beat Goliath once. On the other hand, Goliath didn’t threaten nuclear war.
Follow Daniel Williams on Twitter: @dwilliams1949