Leadership: Russia Does It Right This Time

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September 14, 2009: Russian efforts to create a modern army (one that is as effective as those in the West) have been hampered by a lack of sergeants (praporshchiki). 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.

So the Russians are opening an NCO Academy. It will take 2,000 NCOs a year, and put them through a 34 month course in how to be a superior NCO. Much of the instructional material is being borrowed from the West, where similar NCO schools have been around for decades. None of these schools, however, keep their students for nearly three years. But the Russians know that they have to break a chain of tradition (hazing among troops, deferring all decisions to officers, and so on) that has crippled the Russian army for over half a century. Thus the long course, in an attempt to drill the bad old ways out of these carefully selected troops, and inculcate new methods borrowed from successful professional armies in the West. The graduates of these academies will become platoon and company sergeants (1st Sergeants) and sergeants major for battalions. They will, as in the West, have the respect and trust of the troops, and serve as an intermediary between the officers and the troops. As in the West, the new NCOs will look after the welfare of the troops, especially when the officers are not paying as much attention as they should. The new NCOs will be paid as much a high ranking officers ($1,100 a month), which will help attract the most suitable candidates.

Only the most physically and mentally fit candidates will be accepted, and these men must also have mastered their military skills as well. The Russians expect these new NCOs to set a new, and very high, standard for sergeants. Thus, after a few years, when there are over 5,000 of these new NCOs in the army, it's expected that the bad old habits will finally be on the way out. This is typical of how Russians solve problems, by piling on. It often works.

The worst of the bad old habits is the hazing. It was thought that this sort of thing would speed the demise of conscription in Russia, once the Cold War ended in 1991. But the government has found that, even among the "contract soldiers" (carefully selected volunteers who are paid much more than conscripts) the old abuses lived on, and that most of the best contract soldiers left when their contract was up.

The hazing is most frequently committed by who have been in a year, against the new recruits. This hazing developed after World War II, when Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men, but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior ones. This led to very low morale, and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage and desertions. Long recognized as a problem, no solution ever worked.

It was thought that getting rid of conscripts would do the trick. Not so. Although the volunteers were in for more three years, rather than two (and now one) for conscripts, the lack of effective NCOs saw the bad habits persist. Thus the need to develop professional NCOs to keep things under control in the barracks.

Volunteers cost a lot more than conscripts, but there is not enough money to do away with conscription. Russia uses some volunteers, especially for combat duty in places like Chechnya. These troops get paid on a scale equal to, and, with combat pay, above civilian wages. Conscripts get a few dollars a month. The volunteers expected better living conditions, and often didn't get it. So they left.

The hazing has been one of the basic causes of crimes in the Russian armed forces. The hazing accounts for 20 to 30 per cent of all soldier crimes. This has caused a suicide rate that is among the highest in the world. Poor working conditions in general also mean that Russian soldiers are nearly twice as likely to die from accidents, or suicide, than American soldiers.

 With hazing, and the resulting poor morale and discipline gone, the military will also be able to keep more of its experienced and NCOs. Many of the best ones have been leaving the military, despite better pay and living conditions. All noted the problems, caused by hazing, as a major reason for getting out.

 Conscription itself, and the prospect of being exposed to the hazing, has 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. Thus a lot of the money added to the defense budget is going to end up paying for higher salaries, and producing much more effective troops.

 


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