Sergeants to call more shots in Ukraine’s im­prov­ing army


With Rus­sia’s war in the Don­bas al­ready in its fourth year, Ukraine has al­ready car­ried out ma­jor im­prove­ments to its mil­i­tary, hol­lowed out by de­fense cuts and ne­glect un­der fugi­tive ex-Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych.

But a lot more re­mains to be done if Ukraine is to meet NATO stan­dards by 2020, which is the pri­mary goal of the coun­try’s de­fense re­forms.

Ukraine will take a leaf out of U.S. mil­i­tary man­u­als, and build its new army and navy around a pro­fes­sional sergeant corps sur­rounded by a range of other mid-rank­ing of­fi­cers. A cor­re­spond­ing draft bill to make the changes is now await­ing ap­proval in par­lia­ment.

The idea of cre­at­ing a pro­fes­sional sergeant corps in the Ukrainian army was born on the bat­tle­fields of Rus­sia’s war in the Don­bas.

“Our ac­tual com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence points the way,” Gen­eral Staff Chief Petty Of­fi­cer Olek­sandr Kosyn­skiy told the Kyiv Post in a re­cent in­ter­view. “In bat­tle, if a squad of sol­diers is not united by a leader, it’s doomed. This unit ei­ther won’t ful­fill its mis­sion or won’t get back at all.”

To pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing, all fire teams, squads or pla­toons are to be com­manded by skill­ful and ex­pe­ri­enced ser­vice­men with the rank of sergeant. While higher-rank­ing of­fi­cers take the tac­ti­cal de­ci­sions, sergeants will fol­low their or­ders on the ground and lead the sol­diers in bat­tle. New re­cruits will be brought up to scratch by pro­fes­sional drill sergeants serv­ing as in­struc­tors at train­ing camps.

That, in gen­eral, has been the prac­tice of most of Western mil­i­taries for decades.

How­ever, since i nde­pen­dence, Ukraine’s forces con­tin­ued to use the less ef­fec­tive Soviet ap­proach, where a sergeant is merely a link be­tween sol­diers and of­fi­cers, with the rank some­times even be­ing given to a con­script.

Although Ukraine for­mally ap­proved the adop­tion of the Western model as far back as 2008, many army units did not in­tro­duce it. But once in com­bat, the re­formed units un­der sergeants showed their met­tle. Some 3,500 sergeants had been awarded medals as of July 2017, and over 100 of them have re­ceived two or even three medals for suc­cess­fully car­ry­ing out com­bat mis­sions.

Two Ukrainian sergeants, Oleg Mikhniuk and Igor Zinych, have won the ti­tle of Hero of Ukraine — both posthu­mously.

Ukraine’s supreme com­mand even­tu­ally de­cided that a re­formed Ukrainian army should be built around a ro­bust core of con­tracted ca­reer sergeants.

Mean­while, the old, dis­cred­ited Soviet-style mil­i­tary hi­er­ar­chy will be aban­doned, Kosyn­skiy says.

For in­stance, the old rank of “Pra­por­shchik” ( roughly equiv­a­lent to war­rant of­fi­cer in the U. S. Army), a rank be­tween sergeants and com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers, be­came as­so­ci­ated with cor­rup­tion in Soviet times and af­ter, as sol­diers of this rank were of­ten put in charge of army de­pots. Their plun­der­ing of sup­plies even be­came the butt of jokes.

US style

Kosyn­skiy, who has served in Sierra Leone, Iraq and in the Don­bas, turned to for­eign ex­pe­ri­ence for in­spi­ra­tion.

“We have trav­eled to many coun­tries,” he says. “We’ve been to Canada, Bri­tain, Poland and so on. But in my opin­ion, it was in the United States that we saw the most ef­fec­tive and ad­vanced model of sergeant ser­vice in the world.”

The U. S. Army, as well as the U. S. Ma­rine Corps and other forces, rely heav­ily on non-com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers — for a good rea­son.

“Af­ter the Viet­nam War, the U. S. Armed Forces faced a painful cri­sis. Lots of their sergeants had been killed in com­bat, and even more had left ser­vice. Be­cause of this, dis­ci­pline within the army ranks de­clined dras­ti­cally. There were drugs and al­co­hol is­sues.”

“That’s why the Pen­tagon took the de­ci­sion to start de­vel­op­ing a back­bone of sergeants to ef­fec­tively train, lead and sup­port sol­diers, and also to per­form many other func­tions, such as man­ag­ing tech­ni­cal main­te­nance.”

For ex­am­ple, in the mod­ern U. S. Army a fire team of three pri- vates is led by a sergeant — the fifth rank (E-5) in the 13 ranks of en­listed men in the army. Two such fire teams make up a squad, com­manded by a staff sergeant (E-6), and three squads make up a pla­toon, led by a sergeant first class.

All sergeants are di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for their sub­or­di­nates, and live and work with the lower-rank­ing sol­diers.

“This ap­proach works, as we can see,” Kosyn­skiy con­tin­ues. “How­ever, it’s a never-end­ing process. In July, the Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard of­fi­cers were run­ning a train­ing ses­sion at the Desna drill camp (in Ch­erni­hiv Oblast), and they told us they were still de­vel­op­ing a pro­fes­sional sergeant corps in Amer­ica.”

“We in Ukraine are still at the very be­gin­ning of this path.”

New grades

All of Ukraine’s com­bat units have been switched to the new sys­tem, and all of the non-com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers lead­ing fire teams, squads and pla­toons now have to be con­tracted ca­reer ser­vice­men.

More­over, in June, the Min­istry of De­fense said it had drafted a

bill to com­pletely re­or­ga­nize the rank sys­tem to NATO stan­dards. Ac­cord­ing to min­istry spokesper­son Oksana Gavri­lyuk, the bill will in­tro­duce the ranks of Cor­po­ral, Sergeant, Se­nior Sergeant, Sergeant Ma­jor, Staff Sergeant, Ma­jor Staff Sergeant, Mas­ter Sergeant and Chief Mas­ter Sergeant.

The mil­i­tary says they hope the bill will pass dur­ing the cur­rent au­tumn ses­sion of par­lia­ment and en­ter into force next year.

Non-com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers now con­sti­tute roughly 40 per­cent of to­tal num­ber of U.S. army per­son­nel, while pri­vates make up another 40 per­cent, and com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers and gen- er­als ac­count for the re­main­ing 20 per­cent. Ac­cord­ing to the roadmap of re­forms by 2020, Ukraine’s forces will also have the same rank struc­ture — and the same em­pha­sis on sergeants as in the U.S. mil­i­tary.

Ac­cord­ing to Kosyn­skiy, the change will not only syn­chro­nize Ukraine’s rank struc­ture with those of the NATO mil­i­taries, it will also im­prove the army’s sys­tem of pro­mo­tion and ca­reer ad­vance­ment, mak­ing it more trans­par­ent and merit-based.

Non-com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer coun­cils, sim­i­lar to those of the U.S. army, are ready to start func­tion­ing in Ukraine’s armed forces. Start­ing from 2018, sergeants will de­cide whom of their sub­or­di­nates should be rec­om­mended to se­nior of­fi­cers for pro­mo­tion.

“In gen­eral, any con­tracted sol­dier can now be­come a sergeant — it would be a nat­u­ral step for­ward in his ca­reer. If he tries hard enough, he will be­come a sergeant head­ing a fire team, then the head of a pla­toon, and then be­come a mas­ter sergeant of his com­pany, bat­tal­ion, reg­i­ment, and so on.”

“The best of the best would be­come the Chief Mas­ter Sergeant of Ukraine’s Armed Forces (anal­o­gous to the U.S. rank of Sergeant Ma­jor of the Army).” The most se­nior en­listed rank, this non-com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer acts as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the en­listed men among the se­nior army com­mand.

No stereo­types

Thanks to war movies like Stan­ley Kubrick’s clas­sic “Full Metal Jacket,” pop­u­lar cul­ture has a stereo­type of a typ­i­cal drill sergeant, yelling at young re­cruits and pun­ish­ing them se­verely for mi­nor of­fenses.

How­ever, Kosyn­skiy said, re­al­ity is a lot dif­fer­ent from the movies.

“Those harsh drill sergeants were a phe­nom­e­non of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were a lot of peo­ple serv­ing who had come through the cru­el­ties of the Viet­nam War. Now, things are to­tally dif­fer­ent. I my­self re­ceived ma­rine sergeant train­ing at Camp Le­je­une in North Carolina, and the ap­proach is much more so­phis­ti­cated.”

Still, as Ukraine in­tro­duces its U.S.-based army ranks, there will be more drill sergeants in train­ing camps — although they will all be highly pro­fes­sional con­tract ser­vice­men, Kosyn­skiy said.

“We’re adopt­ing mod­ern U. S. Army and U. S. Ma­rine Corps prac­tices. An army in­struc­tor must do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to teach a re­cruit to sur­vive in com­bat and get the mis­sion done. To­day, it’s much more ef­fec­tive to teach with ap­pro­pri­ate re­spect.”

“In the re­formed Ukrainian army, a re­cruit will be trained re­ally hard to be­come a good sol­dier, but he will no longer be mis­treated. That is what shed­ding the Soviet past is all about.”


A U.S. Army pri­vate first class (R) gives tips to an Afghan sol­dier dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion at Shin­war For­ward Base in Nan­garhar, Afghanistan, on April 11, 2013.

Ukraine’s De­fense Re­forms

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