Saturday, January 31, 2009

Window on Eurasia: In Post-Soviet States, Finally a Time for Sergeants

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 31 – Russia and Armenia announced this week that they will build their armed services in the future around professional non-commissioned officers, a change that will bring them in line with Western militaries, fundamentally change the duties of junior officers, and possibly reduce the number of violations of military law in the ranks.
During the Cold War, one of the most striking differences between NATO forces and the armies of the Warsaw Pact countries was that the former had professional sergeants and other non-commissioned officers and the latter did not. And that difference, many analysts insisted at the time, had a major impact on the very different nature of the two forces.
The existence of professional non-commissioned officers in NATO armies meant that officers could be officers and that long-serving sergeants could play a major role in running their units and preventing the outbreak of the kind of tensions that existed between officers and men in Warsaw Pact armies where there were no such professionals.
With the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many East European countries, including the three Baltic States, who aspired to NATO membership and now in many cases have achieved it, began the process by moving to create the corps of professional sergeants typical of the militaries of the Western alliance.
But the 12 countries that emerged following the disintegration of the USSR have generally retained the older Soviet system of relying on senior draftees to serve as sergeants, an arrangement that increases the burdens on junior officers and frequently leads to outbreaks of “dedovshchina,” the Russian term for mistreatment of junior draftees by more senior ones.
Now, this week, two more of these countries – the Russian Federation and Armenia -- have broken ranks and are beginning to create a professional NCO system, not because either of them aspires to NATO membership but rather because they have become convinced that having professional sergeants will make their forces more militarily capable.
Starting tomorrow, the first of what are slated by 2016 to be 250,000 professional sergeants (a number which by the way is planned to exceed the number of officers at that time by 100,000) will begin training in six higher military schools. Most will pursue a 34 month course, focusing not only on technical subjects but on teaching and psychology.
That program, Nikita Petrov says in a commentary prepared for the Novosti news agency, is designed to teach the future sergeants how to conduct “individual work with soldiers. To be for them not only bosses but also senior comrades, something that unfortunately not all officers today are able of doing (
As of September, professional sergeants will be studying at a total of 68 Russian military schools, and this system is intended to produce some 15,000 NCOs every year. A smaller number of NCOs will be given a shorter course of instruction, at least initially, although it is unclear how long that alternative program will continue.
Meanwhile, Armenia has announced that it is well on the way to creating a professional army with professional NCOs as well, a step that in addition to Russia, four other former Soviet republics -- Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine -- are now taking and one that will likely prompt others, in the first instance their neighbors, to do the same.
A commentary in the Baku newspaper “Zerkalo” today argues that Azerbaijan should take that step both to boost military efficiency and improve conditions for draftees both legally and practically, although it notes that Azerbaijan so far has not adopted the necessary legislation to take this step (
As has been the case elsewhere, the paper notes, there is certain to be resistance to this step from the officer corps who see the rise of professional sergeants, many of the most senior of whom are likely to be paid far more than junior officers as a threat to their status and perquisites. But now that Armenia and Georgia have taken that step, Azerbaijan may follow suit.
And that trend could have an outcome that will strike many as paradoxical: Even those countries which do not aspire to NATO membership or actively oppose that idea are now copying “a NATO standard” in organizing their militaries, something that will almost certainly benefit the soldiers in these forces and hence ultimately the countries they serve.

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