In early 2019 the Russian Army announced an experiment with the use of a senior sergeant (“starshina” or sergeant major) similar to those that have long existed in Western armies, and Russian forces until World War I. This is the latest post-1991 attempt to revive the authority and respect NCOs (non-commissioned officers) had in the Russian army until the early 1920s. In theory, Russia reintroduced NCO (sergeant) ranks in 2011 but the system never really got accepted or established. This time one of the five military districts is going to take a different approach and select 370 soldiers who meet high standards for training and assignment and attempt to turn them into effective NCOs who will make a career of being an NCO and be able to select and train other young soldiers to be NCOs.
China took a different approach under similar circumstances. Initially (in the 1940s, the Chinese used the old Soviet (communist era) rank system but still kept some lower NCO ranks and a tradition of career NCOs. As a result, China never lost its old school tradition of sergeants. In 2009 China switched over to the Western system with nine enlisted soldier ranks. Six of those ranks were for NCOs with the top one being sergeant major. China has been successful with this system and Russia has not.
Until World War I the old czarist army had an impressive number of effective NCOs. In part, this was because the czarist era conscription took in young men (who were not volunteers) for twenty years. This enabled most young men to avoid military duty altogether. The ablest of the conscripts could become senior NCOs and these sergeants were highly respected. During World War II there were a number of respected NCOs because of all the combat experience and lack of time to train outstanding troops as officers. But right after both World Wars Russia got rid of these experienced sergeants by offering officer ranks for those who wanted to stay in the military and thereby eliminating the experienced wartime NCOs. China tried to do the same but in the 1960s when they formally changed its Soviet-style system to keep the useful “old soldiers” (sergeants) who maintained control of the barracks.
Russia noted this after 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2011, after over a decade of false starts and failure, the Russian Army believed it had a workable plan to create an efficient force. That would be a big improvement. For most of the last century, the peacetime Russian Army has been a mess, and the main reason has been the lack of NCOs. Conscription has been a contributing factor, as too many troops were just there for two or three years, and left just as they were becoming useful. The 2011 plan was to expand the number of volunteers, who are paid a competitive (with civilian jobs) wage and must meet high standards. From these volunteers, or "contract" ("kontrakti" in Russian) soldiers, NCO candidates were selected and sent to special NCO schools. Russian officers have examined such schools in Western armies, and adopted techniques they believe would work in Russia.
The army generals also accepted the fact that Western NCOs come in many different flavors. Most of these NCOs are just technical specialists, while a smaller number are supervisors and leaders. Russia accepts that NCOs must be trained to be able to take over command if all the officers are killed or disabled. This actually happened during World War II, but that made Communist Party leaders nervous. They noted that during the communist revolution in 1917, many of the rebel leaders had been NCOs in the Czarist army. The communists also noted that this was not the first time this had happened. It had occurred several times in the last two centuries, most notably during the French revolution of the 1790s. So for monarchists and despots of all flavors, NCOs were a flaw, not a feature of an effective military. That decision is a long term failure because the NCOs are essential for knowing what is going on with the troops (morale, skills, loyalty and so on) and are sensitive to any changes. Officers can rarely do that even though, on paper Russian junior officers are supposed to take care of this. Trying to use lieutenants as sergeants also misses the point that the key NCOs are the older ones, with a decade or more in service. They are the platoon sergeants and company first sergeants, as well as key members of headquarters staffs. After all, who do you think trains the new officers and enlisted soldiers joining these organizations? Same with teams of technical personnel. The most obvious is the team of “maintainers” who look after aircraft and helicopters and are supervised by the “crew chief”, who is the guy the pilot talks to before taking off and returning.
So after World War II, the ratio of officers to troops was expanded in the Russian military and professional NCOs practically disappeared. With that, morale plummeted and discipline disintegrated. The dismal effects of this policy were obvious anytime Russian troops came under fire (Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in the 1980s). But the problems were ignored. Russian leaders continued to believe that "quantity had a quality all its own." It does, but with the rise of the machines, it no longer works with poorly trained and led armies.
Since the 1980s there has been both a declining birth rate to contend with (there are far fewer young men to recruit) and the end of the police state (making it easier to evade conscription, which most potential conscripts do). Russia can no longer rely on quantity or make up for a lack of quality. So since 2011, Russia tried developing the type of senior NCOs (1st Sergeants to run company size units and Sergeants Major to assist commanders of larger units) that make Western forces so capable. The 2011 plan failed because not enough young men (or women) were interested in joining the army in any rank but an officer.
Russia has tried to avoid going with an all-volunteer force, as most other European nations have done. Partly it was a lack of money and partly a reluctance to do away with the tradition of conscription. Because of the lack of NCOs, conscripts have had an awful time for decades, and this has become a source of popular and legendary discontent about military service. The Soviet government managed to suppress popular unrest over this. But after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, fathers, and grandfathers, and especially their wives, were no longer going to quietly endure this mess, and the abuse their sons were exposed to. The 2011 plan was to simultaneously eliminate the hazing of new recruits while flooding the army with competent NCOs. The latter was the real cure for the hazing, as NCOs spend a lot more time in the barracks, and with the troops. A competent NCO can sort out problems in the barracks. In the West, they do it all the time. It is one of their primary functions. Even with conscription now one year for most soldiers there is still the hazing of new conscripts by those who have been in a few months. Eliminating this debilitating hazing has proved much more difficult than anyone anticipated.
The 2011 reforms created other problems. Conscripts only serve 12 months, hardly enough time to turn young civilians into anything militarily useful. Most of the kontrakti were trained in the old army and easily slip into the old bad habits (hazing and bullying younger troops, even fellow kontrakti). The new, trained, NCOs are arrived slowly and found themselves in an uphill battle against "tradition." Many of these NCOs were simply not renewing their contracts and leaving. Change does not come easily in the Russian army. But if the Russians are ever to have a capable military, they have to create credible 1st Sergeants and Sergeants Major. The experiment in the Southern Military District will be watched carefully to see if the new approach will work any better than the 2011 effort.