The Mysterious Case of Russia’s “New Look” Sergeants

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 111

(Source: NATO)

In the immediate aftermath of President Vladimir Putin confirming the continuance of Anatoliy Serdyukov in his post as Russia’s Defense Minister, the mystery has deepened surrounding existing plans to transform the non-commissioned officer (NCO) cadre, reform the officer corps and recruit contract personnel for service in the Armed Forces. A crucial flaw in the planning capacity of the Russian Defense Ministry relates to the lack of synergy in these efforts, or any particular awareness that transforming one element of the manpower system would demand systemic reform in another component. As far as the number crunching on the overall total of a “one million”-strong Russian army, senior officials have recently confirmed that the real figure is significantly lower (Vedomosti, June 9).

The latest blow to the ambitious reform efforts – geared toward reversing the degradation of the NCO cadre and introducing “new look” NCOs into the table of organization and equipment (TOE) – is marked by the decision to restore many sergeant positions to the officer ranks. The Defense Ministry’s Main Cadre Chief Viktor Goremykin recently stated that 7,500 sergeant posts would be restored to the officer TOE. However, the figures cited linked to this initiative range from 5,000 to 11,000, and reportedly many of the lieutenants graduating this summer will be appointed to such positions. In 2009, the size of the bloated officer corps was targeted in the early stages of the reform; but plans and various statements suggested that the number of sergeants would eventually increase. At the same time, the demand for lieutenant graduates markedly declined. Following a brief moratorium on lieutenant cadets commencing courses in higher military educational establishments, this has now given way to an increased demand for them to fill the gaps in the NCO cadre (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 30).

According to Yuriy Gavrilov, writing in the government-linked Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the number of officer positions downgraded to the rank of sergeant negatively impacted on the ability of subunits to fight; officers were removed from technical posts that in the Russian Armed Forces determine combat readiness (such as company technicians or fuel and lubricants specialists); these were not replaced by adequately trained NCOs. The set of problems, which confronted the Defense Ministry in reforming the NCO cadre, proved beyond the planning capacity of the system. Therefore, given that this impacted on the Ground Forces, Air Force and Navy, the sudden reversal in the interests of correcting a flaw essentially undermining the readiness levels within the units seems sensible. The Russian Ministry of Defense has recognized that it is simply not recruiting and training enough NCOs. And in the Air Force, for example, 2,000 sergeant posts will return to the officer TOE, including the commanders of support units (Rossiyskiya Gazeta, May 30).

Nikolay Guryanov’s critical article in Vzglad examining these latest reform reversals suggested that the General Staff wanted to restore to the officer corps positions recently assigned to the NCO cadre, reflecting the General Staff’s assessment that the latter were simply not up to the job, consequently weakening combat readiness levels. In anticipation of fresh criticism of the Defense Minister or his department, the policy reversal was the favored option. One source explained to Interfax that the General Staff understood that the decision in 2009 to transfer primary officer duties at the level of platoon-battalion as well as specialist posts in branches and arms of service to sergeant positions was an error. Interfax’s source observed: “The matter came to the point that in Russian army brigades in recent years they could not maintain armored and automotive equipment at combat readiness. In fact in the posts of company engineers and petrol, oil and lubricants services there were not only contract sergeants, but even conscript sergeants, who had neither the relevant technical education, nor the experience of working with equipment” (Interfax, May 23).
Some critics of the reform, however, went much further in their analysis of the limited planning capacity in the Defense Ministry. First Vice President of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems Konstantin Sivkov explained, “This is a superfluous acknowledgement of the fact that the Russian higher military leadership has no intelligible strategy for the development of the Armed Forces. And in general, judging by everything, does not itself fully represent what it manages” (Vzglad, May 23).

Moreover, Sivkov highlighted the planning muddle – marked by no real policy on military manpower. The Defense Ministry initially set its target for the reduction of the officer corps at 150,000. But later, it had to raise the number of officers in the armed forces to 220,000. Within only one year, moreover, three contradictory stances were adopted on the future of contract and conscript service as well as their mix or balance within the “new look” brigades. Sivkov asserted, “The people, who are concerned with these matters, have not just no intelligible concept for the development of the Armed Forces, they do not have even an elementary intellect,” adding that the Defense Ministry leadership functioned on the basis of “well let us try it, on the chance that something will work out” (Vzglad, May 23).

The constant claims by the Defense Ministry, which placed contract or conscript numbers in a total force strength of “one million,” continue to prove popular in some reporting. But the recalibrated plans to restructure manpower based on 220,000 officers and 425,000 contract soldiers (kontraktniki) by 2016 appear unrealistic. Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov recently flatly contradicted the Defense Minister’s “one million” figure for the total number under arms, placing it closer to 800,000. Russian military experts consider that the long term trends are toward lowering the number of personnel while raising kontraktniki numbers (Vedomosti, June 9;, June 1).

Serdyukov and his advisors have undoubtedly changed the Russian Armed Forces over the past four years, though due to planning weaknesses and a lack of consensus on how to tackle key issues, the future task of transforming the NCO cadre appears to be bleak. The failure to attract enough recruits and offer sufficiently high standards of training has left units in need of a return to reliance upon officers serving in these roles. Equally, the reform has proved fundamentally disjointed, as the Defense Ministry’s planning ignored the need to implement such a change in a time-phased manner with each reform element keeping in step with other supporting measures.