Putin’s Leading War Generals and the Legacy of Syria

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 53

Russian President Vladimir Putin pins a medal on Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov (Source: NETNews)

Russia’s highest-level military officers are heavily influenced in their operational thinking by shared experience of the Syrian theater of military operations. This was used as an en masse training opportunity, which included significant military experimentation, and it boosted combat experience and confidence—arguably over-confidence—among the officer corps. Indeed, public statements, interviews and articles by the senior Russian military officer leadership is replete with the sine quo non of “lessons learned” from Syria. And relatedly, the brutality and disregard for human life that marked the sieges of Aleppo and other Syrian cities are now being played out in Ukraine, as seen, for example, in drone footage shot over Mariupol (YouTube, March 30).

Russia’s five Joint Strategic Commands (Obyedinennoye Strategicheskoye Komandovanie—OSK), based on its Military District (MD) system, provide the OSK commander with full control over the military security forces located within his MD (except for some assets assigned to the General Staff). These commands are the Northern Fleet and Western, Southern, Central, and Eastern OSKs. The latter four commands have overall operational command of the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. In the first six weeks of the war, the so-called “special military operation” evidently lacked an overall commander overseeing the conduct of the war, although in recent days the United States government posited that Moscow had named Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov to head the Russian campaign (RFE/RL, April 10). Dvornikov notably commands the Southern OSK. He and each of the other three OSK commanders are battle hardened, experienced in overseeing Russian operations in Syria, and clearly bring aspects of this operational approach to their involvement in the war against Ukraine.

Colonel General Aleksandr Zhuravlyov was appointed as commander of the Western OSK/MD in November 2018. In July 2016, he was named commander of the Russian group of forces in Syria, a role he held until December of that year, resulting in being awarded the title “Hero of Russia.” Zhuravlyov briefly served as the commander of the Eastern OSK/MD, before being reappointed as the commander of Russian forces in Syria in January 2018, until November 2018 (Interfax, February 21, 2018; Kommersant, November 10, 2018).

Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin was appointed commander of the Central OSK/MD in November 2017. Earlier that year, Lapin served as the chief of staff in the Russian force grouping in Syria, before a brief appointment as the head of the Combined-Arms Academy, in Moscow. From October 2018 to January 2019, Lapin was put in command of the Russian forces in Syria (Mil.ru, March 29, 2020).

Colonel General Aleksandr Chaiko, the youngest OSK commander (50), was appointed to lead the Eastern OSK/MD in November 2021. Chaiko was the first chief of staff of Russian forces in Syria, in 2015. In September 2019 to November 2020 and between February and June 2021, he served as the commander of Russian forces in Syria (RBC, Mil.ru, Debri-dv.ru, accessed April 4).

The most senior-ranked OSK commander is Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov. In September 2015, Dvornikov served as the first commander of Russian forces in Syria and awarded the title “Hero of Russia” on March 17, 2016. In July 2016, he was appointed as the acting commander of the Southern OSK/MD and confirmed in the post on September 20, 2016. On June 23, 2020, he was promoted to the rank of Army General—a distinction only held by three other currently serving Russian generals, the chief of the General Staff (CGS), Valery Gerasimov, the commander of the Ground Forces, Oleg Salyukov, and Aerospace Forces Commander Sergei Surovikin (Svu.ru, accessed April 5, 2022; Izvestia, September 20, 2016; Ukaz, June 23, 2020). Dvornikov’s rank, experience and age (61) indicate that he is a strong candidate for the post of Russia’s next CGS. General Dvornikov is important, therefore, not least because Russia’s Southern OSK has overseen most of the battlefield successes in Ukraine, in the country’s southeast and along much of the Black Sea coast. Equally, Dvornikov will play a key role in the ensuing battle for Donbas; he has already apparently left his fingerprints on the “style” used in the siege of Mariupol. Depending on the extent of Russian military success or failure in Donbas, Dvornikov may officially emerge as the overall commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine. Dvornikov’s reflections on the approaches and successes of Russian forces in Syria are both ominous but also, paradoxically, highlight one of the key failings to date in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

In a 2018 issue of Vestnik, the journal of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, Dvornikov praises Russian performance in Syria as an air-ground campaign, though one mainly carried out by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) with Russian officer instructors. This campaign, he says, exploited a siege-based design, uniting Russian, Syrian and other forces in what he refers to as an “integrated group.” Such integrated groups were used to deliver strikes to “reduce the economic potential of the enemy,” with its “active informational and psychological impact” on enemy formations to undermine their “moral and psychological state,” aiding “highly maneuverable combat operations by autonomous force groupings in separate directions.” Specifically on Aleppo, Dvornikov states that, for the purpose of “constant fire impact on the enemy, the offensive tactics were used in three shifts, day and night, without interruption. A defensive grouping was created along the outer ring,” adding, “Aviation was used to strike targets and groupings of terrorist formations only along the outer ring, rocket troops and artillery, tactical fire weapons,” which functioned in real time as part of the reconnaissance-fire system that was used against “important targets” (Vestnik, 2, 2018).

More generally, Dvornikov observes that Russian operations in Syria convinced the General Staff of the value of “information confrontation.” Dornikov states, “Information resources have become, in fact, one of the most effective weapons. Their widespread use allows, in a matter of days, to shake the situation from the inside. For example, during the operation to liberate Aleppo, information work with the local population helped to liberate entire neighborhoods without a fight and withdraw more than 130,000 civilians” (Vestnik, 2, 2018).

Nevertheless, what worked in Syria is evidently failing in Ukraine. While Dvornikov’s reflections offer some insights into the operational approaches being replicated in Ukraine, the differences are stark: there is no SAA in the lead role as potential cannon fodder, and the enemy forces are much more determined to fight. Dvornikov states that in Syria, the Russian General Staff concluded that the distinctions between strategic, operational and tactical levels of war were being erased resulting in “strategic (operational) goals” “achieved by the actions of military formations at the tactical level.” Thus far, attempting to achieve operational goals through tactical actions in Ukraine has proved to be the central failure of these under-performed engagements. Russia’s leading generals appear to be “fighting the last war” on the battlefields of Ukraine, but without the benefits that helped them succeed in Syria.