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.

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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,” Ukraine’s Armed Forces Command Senior Enlisted Leader 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.”

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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 the Western militaries for decades.

However, since independence, 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.

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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.”

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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 combat team of three privates 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.”

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“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 the total number of U.S. Army personnel, while privates make up another 40 percent, and commissioned officers and generals 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.

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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, the 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.

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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.”

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