Putin shakes up leadership in Ukraine war as defense officials warn of eastward focus

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Russian President Vladimir Putin instated a new commander to lead operations in Ukraine as officials warn Moscow is looking to shift its focus in eastern Ukraine after more than six weeks of war. 

Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, commander of Russia’s southern military district (SMD), will now lead the invasion, first reported the BBC late Friday. 

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Image released by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense on Thursday Feb 17, 2022 shows the frontline of Donbas, a conflict area with the Russian-backed separatists, during President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's visit to the Donetsk region in the east of Ukraine.

Image released by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense on Thursday Feb 17, 2022 shows the frontline of Donbas, a conflict area with the Russian-backed separatists, during President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s visit to the Donetsk region in the east of Ukraine.
(EYEPRESS via Reuters Connect)

Dvornikov not only has known experience in Russia’s campaign in Syria, but also led military exercises in southern Russia last year, right along Ukraine’s border with the Donbas region. 

A western official told the outlet that the change in command will improve Russia’s flagging invasion after it failed to take the capital city of Kyiv despite weeks of shelling and attempts to push ground forces across the country.

“Unless Russia is able to change its tactics, it’s very difficult to see how they succeed in even these limited objectives that they’ve reset themselves,” the official said. 

But Russia has made greater advances in the south and east of Ukraine – an advancement that senior U.S. defense officials have said is largely due to its illegal eight-year occupation of areas like Crimea.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned this week that Russia is looking to focus its efforts on a “major offensive” in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed forces have been fighting the Ukrainian army since 2014 in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

The breakaway regions are located along Ukraine’s eastern border in an area known as the Donbas. 

Six months before Russia invaded Ukraine under the guise of a “special military operation,” Dvornikov directly oversaw military exercises that practiced “combined arms operations from August 9 to September 15” in southern Russia, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

The exercises reportedly included “tactical tasks” involving “motorized rifle, tank, and artillery battalions” in coordination with attached specialized units. 

Relatives of Col. Vladimir Zhoga, commander of a reconnaissance battalion of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People Republic mourn during a farewell ceremony in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Monday, March 7, 2022. Zhoga has been awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation title posthumously. 

Relatives of Col. Vladimir Zhoga, commander of a reconnaissance battalion of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People Republic mourn during a farewell ceremony in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Monday, March 7, 2022. Zhoga has been awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation title posthumously. 
(AP Photo)

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The specialized units focused on “biological, radiological, and nuclear” defenses. Reconnaissance, logistics electronic warfare, medical training, aviation and military police exercises were also held. 

“Warships from the Caspian Flotilla and the Black Sea Fleet, naval infantry, and at least 80 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft” also participated in the exercises, noted the report. 

The trainings occurred along Ukraine’s eastern border as well as in occupied Crimea and parts of occupied Georgia.

The report noted that Russian forces looked to practice joint operations based on lessons learned from experiences in Syria. 

The U.S. and NATO have pledged to increase military support as officials warn the war in eastern Ukraine is expected to become increasingly brutal. 

“This will be a knife fight. This could be very bloody and very ugly,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday. “The Russians are limiting their geographic aims, and they still have a lot of combat power available to them.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, Slovakia's Prime Minister Eduard Heger and Ukraine's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal stand next to a mass grave as they visit the town of Bucha, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, outside of Kyiv, Ukraine April 8, 2022. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Eduard Heger and Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal stand next to a mass grave as they visit the town of Bucha, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, outside of Kyiv, Ukraine April 8, 2022. 
(REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)

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The official said the U.S. believes Russia is looking to add 60,000 recruits to its war effort as it hones in on eastern Ukraine – an area roughly the size of West Virginia. 

U.S. and NATO security officials have warned the war in Ukraine could continue for months, if not years to come. 

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