Fifteen sovereign states emerged from the Soviet Union between March 1990 and December 1991. Although relatively minor armed conflicts erupted in a handful of these states following independence, the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself took place peacefully. This ‘enigma’ of history, in which an empire dissolved peacefully ‘near the close of a century filled with violence and following over four decades of East-West confrontation,’ has been the subject of historical scrutiny for decades.1 Arguably the most important contributing factor to the peaceful end of the Soviet Union was the foresight and actions of its last General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, who ensured that once the collapse began, armed force was not used to try and prevent it.2 In 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his actions to bring a peaceful end to the Cold War.3 The following year, he survived an attempted coup d’état by military hardliners and continued his efforts to prevent war.
The international institutional framework in which the collapse took place was as equally important as the human factor. The European Community (EC) provided a clear and peaceful path forward, in which a divided Europe could plausibly become depolarised and ultimately united by a system of common values. In 1989, the EC signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union, and in February 1991, opened an office in Moscow to improve relations.4 The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) became a key diplomatic player during the period, providing a platform for Soviet leaders to reach out to the West and serving as the primary international organisation working to maintain peace in post-Soviet Europe: CSCE Missions were deployed in every post-soviet state, providing international monitoring and advising governments on good governance, democratisation, and the rule of law.5 Key groundwork for these processes had been laid during arms reduction negotiations. The British and US governments also offered further assurances regarding the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact, and German reunification.6 Upon the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO established the North Atlantic Cooperation Council to improve relations and invite dialogue with post-soviet states.7 These efforts combined to prevent armed conflict during the collapse of the Soviet Union.