Of all the post-invasion excuses given for the Russian army’s failures in Ukraine—corruption, bad logistics, poor execution of a bad idea—the most obvious one, to me, has gotten short shrift: The Russian army has virtually no sergeants— or as retired Army Gen. Mark Hertling put it to me recently, “no functioning NCO corps.”
U.S. veterans have to be gobsmacked as I was hearing this for the first time. From the moment screaming drill instructors “welcomed” us to basic training, the sergeants owned us. From making tight beds to marching in order to firing and cleaning weapons, they told us how to do it. We all lived in fear of being singled out for punishment on the order of Full Metal Jacket.
But as most of us eventually learned, the sergeants were really trying to teach us how to stay alive. In combat units especially, it’s the guys with the stripes who make sure the troops stick together, change their socks, watch the other guy’s six and do things right. Same in the Marines and Navy. Gunneys and petty officers make sure their people eat right, get sleep, write home, ace the drills and—the big one— don’t freeze or run away when the shit hits the fan.
Maybe it’s a peculiarly American trait, but our NCOs are taught to innovate when the battle plan inevitably goes awry. Baked into Russian military practice is the opposite: to wait for orders from above, often, as it turned out in Ukraine, from officers far from the scene. That accounts to Russian units paralyzed by partisan attacks on tank columns en route to Kyiv. [Continue reading…]