Russia’s new war leader, the Butcher of Syria, epitomizes its brutality

Russia has found just the man to lead its ongoing assault on Ukraine, Gen. Alexander Dvornikov.

The top-level general takes over a war that had no single overall commander and as the Russian military has suffered embarrassing setbacks, retreating from its planned siege of Kyiv. 

Dvornikov has led the Russian forces in the south and east of Ukraine, which Moscow will now make its main objective, and perfectly encapsulates the remorseless and long-running brutality of the Russian military. 

He became known as the Butcher of Syria for his role leading the Russian campaign there, most notoriously the reduction of Aleppo.

A United Nations human-rights official called that city in 2016, after the Russians were done with it, “a slaughterhouse.” He depicted “a gruesome locus of pain and fear, where the lifeless bodies of small children are trapped under streets of rubble and pregnant women deliberately bombed.” 

That ghastly description, of course, sounds all too familiar. Naturally enough, the Russian government honored Dvornikov for his bloody handiwork in Syria as a “hero of the Russian Federation.” 

Bucha is another tragic place name in a long catalogue of Russian atrocities — perpetrated against foreigners and its own people, perpetrated when the Soviets struggled for control, during their rule and afterward, perpetrated with relatively primitive military technology and with the most up-to-date modern firepower. 

Where the Russian military goes, war crimes are sure to follow. It is a reflection of a twisted Russian political culture that has never developed an appreciation for individual worth, democratic accountability or humanitarian norms. President Vladimir Putin is not to be confused with Lenin or Stalin — he paints his horrors on a much smaller canvas. But his cold-eyed brutality is characteristically Russian.

Dvornikov became known as the "Butcher of Syria" for leading the brutal Russian campaign.
Dvornikov became known as the “Butcher of Syria” for leading the brutal Russian campaign.
Erik Romanenko/TASS via ZUMA Press

For the last 100 years, Russia has been a brutalized and brutalizing country. It suffered nearly 3.5 million deaths in World War I, another 8 million dead in the Russian Civil War and then 27 million more in World War II. 

The founder of the Soviet state, Lenin, was a theorist and practitioner of “mass terror.” After the revolution, the civil war between the Bolsheviks and their opponents was a series of atrocities. Then came the cataract of unspeakable violence in the death struggle with the Nazis. 

The Red Army’s decisive march to Berlin at the end of the war was one long, pitiless war crime. The Russians raped 2 million German women. According to Antony Beevor, author of a book on the fall of Berlin, one doctor believed that of 100,000 women raped in the city, 10,000 died as a consequence, many by suicide. 

The English-speaking world features its share of shameful and brutal acts but nothing on the mind-numbing scale of such atrocities. And the crimes in the United States and elsewhere are looked back on with shame, whether slavery or the expropriation of indigenous people. In contrast, in the 21st century, when more civilized practices are supposed to have prevailed, Putin is adding more shameful blots to Russia’s woeful record. 

A hospital in Aleppo, Syria that was hit by an airstrike on area of Syria's Aleppo, April 28, 2016.
A hospital in Aleppo, Syria that was hit by an airstrike on area of Syria’s Aleppo, April 28, 2016.
REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

What kind of force considers a hospital a legitimate military target? Terrorist groups — and the Russian military. 

In Syria a few years ago, the Russians bombed four hospitals in the course of 12 hours, a savage performance forecasting the treatment they’d mete out to Ukraine. According to The New York Times, Syrian health-care workers believed that a United Nations deconfliction list containing the locations of hospitals was used as a target list by Russian forces.

Of course, Russia leveled the city of Grozny in the late 1990s, killing thousands of civilians. Its soldiers raped and tortured. 

What Russia lacks in planning and proficiency, it makes up in barbarity and utter disregard for humanity. War is hell, but almost all advanced nations try to keep it within some bounds of decency. Russia is an outlier. For it, the cruelty is the point — and the reflexive practice. 

Twitter: @RichLowry

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