The February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine is revealing to the rest of the world problems the Russian military has suffered from for over a century. It’s all about conscription and, since 1917, the Russian government not trusting their troops and Russians now going to extremes to avoid being conscripted. This widespread opposition to peacetime conscription was unique to Russia. Other European nations adopted conscription as early as the 1800s, but none had as much popular dislike of conscription and some very real reasons to avoid conscript service.
Even the United States, which rarely used peacetime conscription, had it during peacetime for about fifteen years between 1940 and 1973. Americans tolerated conscription in wartime as long as all young men were subject to it. During the civil war it was possible for families with money to pay a relatively large sum to keep their sons out of uniform. This led to violence in many areas. By 1940, when peacetime conscription was once more used, there were no problems with selectivity. The “who should serve” problem returned in the 1960s. This is often attributed to the unpopular Vietnam War (1965-72) but conscription was also unpopular during the earlier (1950-53) Korean War. Both wars were unpopular with most Americans because the United States was not threatened with attack, unlike the two World Wars. In Korea the government used reservists as much as possible and kept the war from escalating, so few conscripts were sent into battle. The 1960s was different because the large Baby Boom generation, of children born after World War II, were reaching 18 in large numbers throughout the decade and even without a war in Vietnam, there would have been growing popular support for eliminating conscription because there were far more young men available for conscription than the military needed. Even with the Vietnam War, by 1970 politicians had to heed demands for an end to peacetime conscription and that was done by 1973. Britain, alone among European nations, also had a tradition of avoiding peacetime conscription. Britain had conscription during World War I but dropped it in 1920. Conscription returned in World War II but despite the Cold War, Britain ended conscription in 1960.
When the Cold War ended unexpectedly in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, European voters began demanding an end to conscription. That happened throughout Europe during the 1990s, but was reversed after 2014 when a much-reduced Russian military again became a threat. This was a different threat because post-Soviet Russia had a military one fifth the size of the Cold War Soviet forces and most of the troops were very reluctant conscripts who only had to serve one year. Even that was worth a large bribe, if your family could afford it, to buy an exemption. One of the many causes of the Soviet Union collapsing was increasing public protests against Russian conscripts being killed in an unpopular eight-year war in Afghanistan. Some 15,000 Russian died in Afghanistan, most of them conscripts. There were unprecedented public protests by parents who had lost sons as well as parents who did not want their conscripted sons sent there.
In the 1990s there were more protests, this time by Russian voters in a democratic Russia that sent thousands of conscripts into the Caucasus to put down a Chechen uprising. Many conscripts were killed and Russian leaders finally remembered that they lowered their losses in Afghanistan by depending more on commandos and airborne troops, who were all volunteers. Some of those volunteers were conscripts who felt up to the challenge of being a spetsnaz commando or paratrooper and the Afghans feared these troops. By 2014 Russian leaders realized that getting conscripts killed in combat outside of Russia was not worth the political trouble and formed all-volunteer combat units that were only about ten percent of the military and that was but one of many problems that still existed in the Russian military.
Since the 1990s Russia has been trying, without much success, to address these many problems. For example, since 2019 the Russian Army was once more trying another approach to create enough sergeants to match the Western success with this form of troop leadership. The 2019 effort was 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 was 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 that system was never accepted or able to sustain itself. The 2019 plan took place in only one of the five military districts took part. It involved selecting 370 soldiers who met high standards for special training and encouraged enough to become effective NCOs willing to make a career of being an NCO. This was supposed to provide enough competent NCOs who could select and train other young soldiers to be NCOs. The starshina effort was only partially successful because only troops in the elite spetsnaz and airborne units provided satisfactory career opportunities for veteran NCOs. The rest of the military has rather less accepting.
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 respected and received post-service benefits. During World War II Russia produced many effective 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 eliminated the experienced wartime NCOs.
After 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia noted their post-World War II experience and the Chinese system. In 2011, after over a decade of false starts and failure, the Russian Army believed it had a workable plan to create an efficient NCO force. That first effort did not work, despite the fact that 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 some were becoming useful and capable of being a career NCO. The 2011 plan tried to take advantage of this by offering selected conscripts a competitive (with civilian jobs) wage if they agreed to continued service, with the option of promotion to better paying NCOs rank. There were many volunteers, or "contract" ("kontrakti" in Russian) soldiers, and those deemed NCO material were sent to special NCO schools. Russian officers examined such methods in Western armies and adopted the Western techniques they believed 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. For monarchists and despots of all flavors, NCOs were a flaw, not a feature of an effective peacetime military. That decision was 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 in place as older and more experienced sergeants missed the point that the key NCOs are the older ones, with a decade or more in service. These 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 example is the team of “maintainers” who look after aircraft and helicopters and are supervised by an NCO “crew chief”, who is the guy the pilot talks to before taking off and after returning.
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 whenever Russian troops came under fire, as in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and 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. It definitely does not work when parents can vote and publicly protest abuse of conscripts or the continued use of conscription.
Since the 1980s Russia also had a declining birth rate to contend with, which meant there were far fewer young men to recruit. The end of the Russian police state made 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. The 2011 Russian plan failed because not enough young men (or women) were interested in joining the army as anything 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 even before the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, fathers, and grandfathers, and especially their wives, were no longer quietly enduring 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 Russian 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 failed in part because Russian 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 slipped into the old bad habits like hazing and bullying younger troops, even fellow kontrakti. The new, trained, NCOs arrived slowly and found themselves in an uphill battle against "tradition." Many of these new NCOs reacted by 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 platoon and 1st Sergeants as well as Sergeants Major. The experiment in the Southern Military District was another new approach that worked better than earlier efforts, but was not successful enough to be considered a major sign of progress.
Russia was reminded of these problems after 2014 when they sent troops, in unmarked uniforms, into eastern Ukraine (Donbas). There the fighting continued and local forces, paid like kontrakti, were inadequate to the task and many were simply quitting and leaving Russian-controlled areas of Donbas. Russia thought they could send some conscripts into Donbas as support troops. Some of these were killed and a few captured by Ukrainian forces. The Russian conscripts complained that they were deceived and not told they were going into a combat zone, although the unmarked uniforms were rather suspicious. Russia outlawed public discussion of military casualties but this did not stop the bad news from circulating via the Internet and social media. Currently Russia is arresting thousands of civilians protesting the war in Ukraine, even though few conscripts have been killed yet. The army planned to send in units with conscripts into Ukraine to handle transportation and distribution of supply as well as for policing parts of the Ukraine that are considered free of Ukrainian resistance. Since 2015 Ukraine has organized, trained and armed thousands of volunteers as local defense forces. Weapons were stockpiled for distribution to volunteers if the Russians invaded. The Russians came and the local volunteers are making Russian travel through many “liberated” areas dangerous. The volunteers shoot at any armed Russians, be they conscripts or kontrakti. In some cases, the Russian combat units were told to just bypass this unexpected resistance and let units full of armed conscripts take care of it. Old traditions die hard in Russia.