If confirmed, the dismissal of General Alexander Dvornikov, called the “Butcher of Aleppo” for his destruction of the Syrian city in 2015, would mark yet another major shake-up of Russian military command, suggesting Putin is unhappy with how the war is unfolding.
The British Ministry of Defence said on Saturday that the Kremlin has recently fired several generals including Gen. Dvornikov and commander of Airborne Forces General-Colonel Andrei Serdyukov.
The Russian Ministry of Defence has not commented but it follows weeks of unconfirmed rumours of Putin’s dissatisfaction with his performance.
Despite being in command of Russian forces fighting in Ukraine since April, Gen Dvornikov, 60, has not been seen in public for more than a month. During this time, the Russian army’s main victory has been to inch forward towards capturing the Donbas city of Severodonetsk, which Ukrainian forces on Saturday had “almost left”, according to the regional governor.
However, Moscow’s army has been dogged by Ukrainian resistance, with its infantry unable to claim many towns as captured despite them being nearly levelled by Russian artillery.
Gen Dvornikov had likely simply taken too long to capture Donbas, which has been Putin’s priority target since his failure to capture Kyiv in March, said Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“Dvornikov was given a June 10 target date to conquer Severodonetsk and while he missed that deadline, he used his trademark Aleppo-style offensive tactics,” he said.
Mr Ramani also described the sacking of Gen Serdyukov as commander of Russia’s airborne units as “a stunning demise”.
Gen Serdyukov had commanded around 2,000 Russian paratroopers in January when they deployed to Kazakhstan to help crush unrest. The Kremlin considered the mission to have been a major success and Gen Serdyukov had been earmarked for promotion.
Putin has been accused of micromanaging military operations from the Kremlin, frustrating generals who have complained that he is not competent. Rumours have been circulating for weeks that he had fallen out with Gen Dvornikov in particular.
In a YouTube interview earlier this month, one of the lead journalists in the British open-source investigative journalism group Bellingcat, Christo Grozev, said that Gen Dvornikov was known to be a heavy drinker and that officers who worked with him in Syria didn’t trust him.
“The reputation of Dvornikov from Syria within the army was not very high. They presented to the public that he was a tough strategist, but they already knew that his ability to coordinate different types of troops was not very high,” he said “He drinks alcohol to excess and decides on situations, such as when to start war, in the middle of the night without any intelligence support.”
Other open-source investigative media outfits have reported that General Gennady Zhidko has replaced Dvornikov as overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. He is also a deputy Defence Minister, with a brief to maintain political and ideological discipline within the Russian army, and like Dvornikov was involved in Russia’s military operations in Syria.
It is the latest shake-up to the Russian military command in Ukraine. In March, frustrated at his forces failure to capture Kyiv, Putin reportedly sacked eight Russian army generals as well as the head of the FSB intelligence unit that he blamed for supplying him with dodgy pre-invasion intelligence.
He has also fired the heads of various regional security organisations since the start of the war because they have not shown him enough loyalty and replaced the FSB operation tasked with spying on Ukraine with a military intelligence unit.
A Russian military analyst who asked not to be named said that the fast rotation of generals betrayed the chaos within the Russian military organisation.
“The exact command structure of Russian forces in Ukraine is murky,” he said. “Top generals are serving as tactical field commanders at the front which is unusual and a sign of desperation.”
Several Russian generals have already been assassinated in Ukraine as they tried to command from frontline positions.