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Russian Army’s Quiet Fatal Flaw: No Sergeants
Issues of corruption, poor logistics and inept leadership overshadow a critical hole in the Russian lines: Few NCOs to keep the troops fighting
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.
It’s hard to imagine how a unit could operate without NCOs, much less win, on the battlefield. And yet the Russian army, for lots of reasons peculiar to its history and culture, has them in name only.
Only retired Army Gen. Mark Hertling seems to have raised the dearth of sergeants as one of the major reasons for the Russian army’s poor performance in Ukraine.
“I’ve spoken about a 1000 times on [the] lack of NCO leadership in RU army,” Hertling, commander of U.S. Army Europe from 2011-2012, texted me in response to my recent query. “It’s been a leadership (which is part of the corruption) issue for the last twenty years. I saw it at every level. But there is no functioning NCO corps.”
Hertling knows this first hand. He got his initial, up close and personal looks at Russian combat units and training methods in the 1990s, during the post-Soviet, U.S.-Russia thaw. During an exchange visit to Moscow he was invited to visit Russian units and sit in on classes for Russia's officer corps. He was taken aback at the treatment of the troops.
“The Russian barracks were spartan, with twenty beds lined up in a large room similar to what the U.S. Army had during World War II. The food in their mess halls was terrible,” he recalled in a piece for The Bulwark conservative news site. What drill sergeants they had were “horrible,” he said. Hazing was rampant.
Russian officer training was as bad. “The Russian ‘training and exercises’ we observed were not opportunities to improve capabilities or skills, but rote demonstrations, with little opportunity for maneuver or imagination,” he went on. “The military college classroom where a group of middle- and senior-ranking officers conducted a regimental map exercise was rudimentary, with young soldiers manning radio-telephones relaying orders to imaginary units in some imaginary field location. On the motor pool visit, I was able to crawl into a T-80 tank—it was cramped, dirty, and in poor repair—and even fire a few rounds in a very primitive simulator ....”
The scales fell from his eyes. Hertling said he “came away from my first formal exchange with the Russian Army doubtful they were the ten-foot-tall behemoth we thought them to be.” The revelation was affirmed by a second exchange visit.
Hertling’s visits mirrored much of what the British journalist Andrew Cockburn had concluded from interviewing Soviet émigrés and U.S. defense analysts more than a decade earlier. In a PBS documentary, a book and several magazine articles, Cockburn argued that U.S. weapons makers inflated the power and efficiency of the USSR’s military forces to win bigger Pentagon contracts. A reviewer for Foreign Policy magazine called Cockburn’s book, The Threat – Inside the Soviet Military Machine, “a welcome addition to a debate in which most of the literature is on the hawkish side of the scale.”
Over the following decades, Hertling’s disdain for Moscow’s military product only deepened. “My subsequent visits to the schools and units…reinforced these conclusions. The classroom discussions were sophomoric, and the units in training were going through the motions of their scripts with no true training value or combined arms interaction—infantry, armor, artillery, air, and resupply all trained separately. It appeared that [Aleksandr] Streitsov [commander of the Russian Ground Forces] had not attempted to change the culture of the Russian Army or had failed.”
Still, nuclear-armed Russia represented a threat, especially after Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and, six years later, Crimea. Putin was increasingly unleashing “hybrid war,” an ugly mix of threats, political subversion, cyber attacks and coup plots, against former Warsaw Pact states.. Hertling grasped that the U.S. had to help Ukraine and the other former Soviet satraps, many now NATO members, sharpen their knives for the Russian threat. And that would require breaking the bad military habits of a generation. He persuaded the Obama Pentagon and NATO members to open a European training center for Ukrainian and other Eastern European troops.
Last February, it paid dividends. With Russian troops, tanks, artillery and aircraft poised to cross into Ukraine, U.S. intelligence and virtually every cable news “national security consultant” was predicting Putin’s invasion would be a cake walk. But not Hertling. On CNN, he predicted the Ukrainians would eventually hold and prevail. It was not a popular position.
“I got some huge blowback on it from many in CNN,” he told me. “And some retired guys— Spider Marks, who’s never served in Europe, told me I was crazy—[and] some in different government agencies [critisized me]. But none had the experiences I had.”
As Russian tanks rumbled down the highway toward Kyiv, U.S. intelligence, with its $50 billion annual budget spread across 17 agencies, somehow overlooked the Russian army’s fatal flaws. It predicted the Russian army, with nary a sergeant helping its troops, tanks and artillery adjust on the fly against Ukrainian guerrilla attacks, would roll into Kyiv in a matter of days, a week or two at the most. When U.S. intelligence officials offered their mea culpas weeks later, they said they underestimated the Ukrainians’ willingness to fight—inexplicable after U.S. forces had been training their army for the past eight years.
According to another report, U.S. intelligence analysts, “did not recognize the significance of rampant corruption and incompetence in the Putin regime, particularly in both the Russian army and Moscow’s defense industries.” Current and former intelligence officials told The Intercept’s James Rosen and Ken Klippsenstein that “U.S. intelligence missed the impact of corrupt insider dealing and deceit among Putin loyalists in Moscow’s defense establishment, which has left the Russian army a brittle and hollow shell.”
But Hertling had seen it all.
On Feb. 24, he tweeted, “Ukraine had a tough first day. Tomorrow will be tougher. Combined RU conventional, unconventional, cyber, air, arty & special ops tools will be tough to address. But Russia is still on the *offensive* so they have to act, and must continue to "move." They will wear down.” He was right.
Thanks largely to the American trainers Hertling argued for decades ago, Ukrainian guerrillas and infantry units have continued to take the battle to the inferior Russian troops, watered down even further since last winter with barely trained, poorly equipped and fed conscripts. They’re panicking. Never more has an army needed sergeants than the Russians do now. It’s too late.
A couple weeks ago I lobbed a final, joshing question to the retired general. I asked him, “How did you get so smart?” He didn’t dodge my cheeky question. He declined to go into details about his upbringing, inspirational figures or particular mentors, but in a back-channel Twitter exchange, he let his silver hair down a little.
“I’m a poor kid from Missouri who was given a chance to see the world and do some neat things,” he said. “My career was a bit strange, not by design but by opportunities. I like people and learning about cultures, and I was both blessed and lucky.”
“Oh,” he added, “and I have a great wife and family who put up with my faults, and some friends and mentors that helped me learn and grow. That’s really it in a nutshell.”
And that was it. I’d overstayed my welcome so I bid him goodbye with thanks for his generous time.
Blessed and lucky indeed. The Ukrainians should erect a statue to Hertling when this thing is over. And maybe so should we.