After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian military rotted away. In one of the most dramatic campaigns of peacetime demilitarization in world history, from 1988 to 1994, Moscow’s armed forces shrank from five million to one million personnel. As the Kremlin’s defense expenditures plunged from around $246 billion in 1988 to $14 billion in 1994, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the government withdrew some 700,000 servicemen from Afghanistan, Germany, Mongolia, and eastern Europe. So much had the prestige of the military profession evaporated during the 1990s that when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea in 2000, its captain was earning the equivalent of $200 per month.
From 1991 to 2008, during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin and the first presidential term of Vladimir Putin, Russia used its scaled-down military within the borders of the former Soviet Union, largely to contain, end, or freeze conflicts there. Over the course of the 1990s, Russian units intervened in ethnic conflicts in Georgia and Moldova and in the civil war in Tajikistan—all minor engagements. Even for the operation in Chechnya, where Yeltsin sent the Russian military in 1994 in an attempt to crush a separatist rebellion, the Russian General Staff was able to muster only 65,000 troops out of a force that had, in theory, a million men under arms.
Russia is back as a serious military force in Eurasia.
Beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, Russia acted meekly. It sought a partnership with the United States and at times cooperated with NATO, joining the peacekeeping operation led by that alliance in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. To be sure, after realizing in the mid-1990s that NATO membership was off the table, Moscow protested vehemently against the alliance’s eastern expansion, its 1999 bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, but Russia was too weak to block any of these moves. The Kremlin’s top priority for military development remained its nuclear deterrent, which it considered the ultimate guarantor of Russia’s
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