Leadership: Russians Desperately Seeking Sergeants


April 24, 2012: The Russian military is desperately trying to avoid fading away. Increasingly popular opposition to military service has made it extremely difficult to get anyone for the military and troop quality has plummeted. Draft dodging has reached epidemic proportions and efforts to attract more highly paid volunteers have failed. Currently the military has 220,000 officers and 200,000 "contract personnel" (higher paid volunteers, who fill most of the NCO slots). Thus most of the troops are conscripts and it's getting harder and harder to find enough people to grab. Most of the missing troops were young men who were conscripted but never showed up. The barracks are thinly populated and the situation is becoming a major national scandal.

Russia's military leaders have come to understand that the key problem has been the lack of adequate troop supervision. In other words, Russia does not have good sergeants (NCOs or non-commissioned officers). This is because during the Soviet Union period (1921-91) the communists gave NCO's responsibilities and duties to officers, whom the communists considered more trustworthy. There was one major flaw in that plan. Without NCOs no one was maintaining order and discipline in the barracks. The young lieutenants normally assigned to run a platoon had no experience handling troops and were often intimidated by bullies in the ranks. There were not enough more experienced, but higher ranking, officers to come and back the lieutenants up. While the threat of arrest and prison (or labor camps) prevented mutiny or complete anarchy, the stronger troops picked on the weaker ones, making military service extremely unpopular for all the wrong reasons. The conscripts didn't mind serving their country but they did not like being bullied and exploited by gangs of young soldiers.

For over a decade now the generals have tried to break this cycle of "hazing." Taking advice from their Western counterparts they sought to develop NCOs who could take charge of the barracks. They discovered that building an effective NCO corps from scratch is not easy. For one thing, the culture of hazing is very hard to extinguish. Many of the first "professional" (carefully selected, trained, and better paid) NCOs gave up and got out of the military. Facing down the gangs of bullies was more trouble than it was worth.

The Russians cannot afford to stop trying, as they will find themselves with a largely ineffective military if they don't find a way to make all the troops act like professionals. So the latest effort is based on increasing the number of contract troops to 425,000 over the next four years and using a special six week training and selection program, to make sure the right people are signed up. The six week course is a series of training and testing sessions that determine if candidates can handle the stress of military life and possess enough maturity to avoid hazing and stop those who are still bullying their fellow soldiers. These new contract soldiers are expected to be seeking a military career and willing to take on more responsibilities (becoming NCOs or technical specialists). To meet the goal of 425,000 contract soldiers the military will have to bring in 50,000 new contract soldiers a year. If that goal is achieved most of the enlisted troops would be contract troops and professional enough to eliminate the bullying among the conscripts. If that can be done, and most of these new volunteer soldiers do indeed renounce the culture of hazing, then the bullies will be a small minority, few enough for officers and existing NCOs to take care of. Over the next decade many of the new contract soldiers will rise in the NCO ranks, never having been polluted by the culture of hazing and ready to crack down on any junior troops who try to revive the bad old ways (and many will, having heard stories from older male relatives or their friends).

Currently conscripts are inducted twice a year, in April and October. Last year the April intake was 220,000 but fewer than that actually made it into uniform. Last October only 135,000 were expected and only about 100,000 were actually put into service. The military is willing to accept the fact that they will not be able to obtain more than 270,000 conscripts a year, if that. That means there will never be a million man force. At the moment there are too many officers, not enough contract soldiers and NCOs, and about the right amount of conscripts, if the conscription goals can be reached. So far, this does not seem realistic.

The basic recruiting problem is two-fold. First, military service is very unpopular and potential conscripts are increasingly successful at dodging the draft. But the biggest problem is that the number of 18 year olds is rapidly declining each year. The latest crop of draftees was born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That was when the birth rate went south. Not so much because the Soviet Union was gone but more because of the economic collapse (caused by decades of communist misrule) that precipitated the collapse of the communist government. The number of available draftees went from 1.5 million a year in the early 1990s, to 800,000 today. Less than half those potential conscripts are showing up and many have criminal records (or tendencies) that help sustain the abuse of new recruits that has made military service so unsavory.

With conscripts now in for only a year, rather than two, the military is forced to take a lot of marginal (sickly, overweight, bad attitudes, drug users) recruits in order to keep the military and Ministry of Interior units up to strength. But this means that even elite airborne and commando units are using a lot of conscripts. Most of these young guys take a year to master the skills needed to be useful and then they are discharged. Few choose to remain in uniform and become career soldiers. That's primarily because the Russian military is seen as a crippled institution and one not likely to get better any time soon. With so many of the troops now one year conscripts, an increasing number of the best officers and NCOs get tired of coping with all the alcoholics, drug users, and petty criminals that are taken in just to make quotas. With the exodus of the best leaders, and growing number of ill-trained and unreliable conscripts, the Russian military is more of a mirage than an effective combat (or even police) organization.

The government found that, even among the contract soldiers the old abuses lived on and that most of the best contract soldiers left when their contract was up. It was because of the brutality and lack of discipline in the barracks. The hazing is most frequently committed by troops who have been in six months or so against the new recruits. But this extends to a pattern of abuse and brutality by all senior enlisted troops against junior ones. It’s long been out of control. The abuse continues to increase because of the growing animosity against troops who are not ethnic Russians.

Conscription and the prospect of being exposed to the hazing led to a massive increase in draft dodging. Bribes and document fraud are freely used. Few parents, or potential conscripts, consider this a crime. Avoiding the draft is seen as a form of self-preservation.

The Russian lack of sergeants (praporshchiki) has been difficult to fix. Just promoting more troops to that rank, paying them some more, and telling them to take charge has not done the job. So going back to look at how Western armies do it, the Russians noted that those foreign armies provided a lot of professional training for new NCOs and more of it as the NCOs advanced in rank. But this is a long term process and it will be years before benefits will be felt.

All this is in sharp contrast to the old days. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it had five million troops in its armed forces. Now it's less than one million in just Russia (which has about half the population of the Soviet Union but most of the territory). Although the Russian armed forces lost over 80 percent of its strength in the last 18 years a disproportionate number of officers remained. At the beginning of the current round of reforms the Russian military has about 1.2 million personnel (400,000 in the army itself, the rest in paramilitary units that are largely uniformed and armed like soldiers). But there were 355,000 officers in this force. That's more than one in three. With all that some 40,000 officer positions were still vacant. The reorganization eliminated nearly half of them.

Russia has tried to change public attitudes towards the armed forces by publicizing all the new changes and programs. But word got around that most of these efforts failed. Blame that on the Internet. Polls constantly show that most military age men do not want to serve in the military and the main reason is the hazing and prison-like conditions in the barracks. The new generation of NCOs and better troop living conditions are meant to provide an atmosphere that will not scare away conscripts and volunteers.



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