“The backbone of the army is the noncommissioned man!” – Rudyard Kipling, “The ‘Eathen”

As I was closing out my time as a platoon leader, during one of those Saturday morning reverse-mentoring sessions when my platoon sergeant and I broke bread over cold beer and “watching flowers grow” on public broadcasting, I thanked him for everything he had taught me over the previous year. When I’d arrived at Fort Campbell in 1988, I was a typical second lieutenant – filled with “unbridled energy and excitement, but otherwise pretty much clueless.” Over the course of 15 months of platoon time, my platoon sergeant had patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) taught me the tools of the trade.

Or so I thought.

He tipped his beer back and took a long drink. “I didn’t teach you anything, L-T.” He finally replied, gesturing with the empty can in his hand. “I gave you the time and space to learn. That’s what a good NCO does. You might pick up a thing or two along the way, but an NCO’s job is to help you to learn.”

In the 30 or so years since that conversation, I’ve replayed it over in my head countless times. Not so much the statement itself – he taught me plenty, and that was never a question – but the other side of the question. I was fortunate enough to benefit from a strong corps of noncommissioned officers. What happens to those who don’t? And what are the long-term impacts of that gap?


Fortunately, we don’t have to look far for the answer: Ukraine.

When Russia launched a large-scale invasion into the former Soviet republic on February 24, the end goal was clear: a quick decapitation of the Zelensky government followed by the installation of a pro-Russian puppet administration. Should that fail, a negotiated settlement that ceded separatist-controlled territory surrounding Luhansk and Donetsk.

As the invasion bogged down and the losses escalated, Russia shifted its operational focus to the Donbas in hopes of salvaging at least some degree of success from the mounting fiasco. On the surface, there are any number of reasons for the debacle. Hear No Evil leadership – Putin’s preferred style – assures that no one will tell him what he needs to hear when it actually matters. Attacking during Rasputitsa, the seasons of the year when the muddy soil conditions make offensive maneuver especially challenging, was a mistake made by both Napoleon and Hitler. Finally, assuming that old school propaganda – a standard practice from the Soviet-era playbook – would neutralize the moral forces of war was a gaffe that would have had Clausewitz laughing in his grave.

But the true reason behind Russia’s failures in Ukraine is much simpler. Paraphrasing Kipling, Russia’s army lacks a backbone.

rED daWN

It wasn’t always that way. During Russia’s tsarist period, the noncommissioned officer corps played a central role in the success of the army. The military reforms instituted by Peter the Great in the early 18th century strengthened this role through a system of merit-based advancement. But, in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, all that was lost.

Beginning in 1918, the Soviets adopted a conscript-based army, a model that abandoned the imperial reforms in favor of a mass levy. In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, conscription remained central to the organization of the armed forces. Even the Serdyukov and Shoygu reforms of 2008 – which pushed Russia toward a smaller, more modern military – failed to significantly alter the Bolshevik-era organizational model.

In a 2020 study of Russia’s armed forces, the Center for Strategic and International Studies summarized the impact of mass conscription on a contemporary military: “Conscript armies usually lack the long-service, professional noncommissioned officer corps that is considered the bedrock of a modern Western military.” Without that corps, officers are left to attempt to fill their duties as well as those performed by noncommissioned officers, typically failing at both. They don’t bridge the gap. They don’t learn the lessons they need to learn. They don’t develop in the ways they should.

During the height of the Cold War, those deficiencies could be hidden in the sheer numbers of forces employed in wartime. Quantity has a quality all its own, after all. But remove quantity from the equation – the reforms necessary to forge a smaller, more modern Russian military – and the lack of quality explodes to the surface.

Condition Red

When that army launched itself into Ukraine on February 24, the impacts of the gap – the absence of a seasoned noncommissioned officers corps – were revealed on a world stage. In traditional Western militaries, the “backbone of the army” is where the day-to-day stuff happens, such as training, maintenance, and discipline. Our noncommissioned officers oversee physical training, ranges, motor stables, inventories, personnel accountability, and a myriad of other tasks. Without their efforts, lethality is just another buzzword.

As the Russians stormed into Ukraine, a lack of cohesion between advancing infantry and armor – what we call combined arms – left equipment and personnel vulnerable to attacks by hunter-killer teams and drones. Poorly maintained vehicles broke down all along routes of advance, stalling columns in the open. As columns bogged down, logistical shortfalls outstripped resupply capability. Russian troops abandoned equipment in place, widespread looting and atrocities became disturbingly common, and discipline broke down altogether as many of those soldiers deserted their formations. Much of Ukraine became a free-fire zone as Zelensky’s forces counterattacked with impunity. What was left turned back toward Donbas on a double-time.

All for the want of a corps of noncommissioned officers.

If Putin is looking to lay blame on someone, he can start with Lenin, whose post-revolution reforms established the model. He could move on to Stalin, whose system of conscription continues today. Or he could blame himself for not seeing the flaws in his own efforts to revitalize the Russian military. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but it all starts at the top.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.