Picking up from where we stopped – a brief recap is needed: we have surveyed the histories of Russia and Ukraine (as disparate yet overlapping entities) from the 16th century straight through to the tail-end of the 20th century. The question now, however, is – why does this all matter when it comes to the contemporary Ukrainian crisis?
There are two obvious reasons why history matters – the first concerns the "push" factors, e.g. motivating incentives that propelled and underpinned active actions; the second pertains to the "pull" factors, e.g. constraints and deterrents that have (until recently) successfully contained the territorial ambitions of Russia and the defensive paranoia of Ukraine.
The first set of factors – i.e. the push factors – revolves around the following. Modern Russia wants to "reclaim" Ukraine, despite the latter never truly rightfully belonging or identifying with the former, through military action; whomever succeeds shall be highly well-regarded in the hallways of Russian history – in the eyes of powerful kleptocrats and rulers. Additionally, Ukraine's resource-rich territory would prove to be very valuable for Russia, at large; this much is clear from the two states' historical economic and resource-based interactions.
Certain members of the Ukrainian public, on the other hand, have historically viewed Russia with significant suspicion – especially amongst the more liberally and democratically oriented individuals, and those who do not share ethnic or linguistic commonalities with the Russians. Historical animosities have in turn been amplified by recent acts of aggression by the Kremlin, and alleged provocation by Kyiv. Ukraine views itself as defending against a declining Russia, yet recent regimes have also sought to increase Ukraine's defensive capacities and geopolitical standing through seeking closer ties with both NATO and EU states.
The second set, on the other hand, concerns what has very well been holding "both sides" back – particularly Russia – from enacting their geopolitical ambitions in full. Ukraine has been prohibited from acceding to full NATO membership, no less due to the very fear that doing so would pose an active affront and instigation to Putin's precipitously anxious regime. On the other hand, Russia had, throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, been largely "restrained" in eschewing overt military operations against Ukraine – out of both a desire to deepen economic ties with Europe, and to consolidate diplomatic relations with the rest of the world.
The trouble, of course, was that this fragile balance-of-powers was unlikely to last. More precisely, it was destined to fail for three reasons – two structurally external to Ukraine, and one inherent in Ukraine's distinctive political agency.
The first constituted the concerns – well-founded, ill-founded, substantiated or otherwise – of NATO member states. NATO had progressively expanded its reach eastwards throughout the late 1990s, 2000s, and early 2010s – for those who had applied to join it, the promise of security and shielding from Russian aggression was far too appealing; from the perspective of existing member states, whilst an expansion in the membership of NATO rendered the overarching burden a heavier one to bear, it was also a mantle that many were open and receptive towards bearing, both as a means of constraining Russian growth and expansion of its sphere of influence, and of demonstrating the symbolic openness of NATO as an alliance. Yet these member states were simultaneously paranoid – they were troubled by the prospects of a resurgent Russia, and therefore sought to alternate between two strategies: maximising build-up of defensive security apparatus near the borders with Russia (especially amongst member states such as Poland and the Baltic States); keeping NATO out of the immediate vicinity of Russia elsewhere – e.g. in Ukraine – in order to assuage Kremlin's worries.
This, as it turned out, proved to be an untenable attempt at having the cake and eating it – or, shall I say, causing the cake to implode through spreading the heavy fondant too thin over a wobbly, shaky foundation. NATO neither managed to wholly deter and inhibit Russian aggression (cf. recent events, but also Crimea in 2014), nor succeeded in assuaging the fears of the warlords and mercenaries that had populated Russian defense policy since the early 2010s. Whilst it would be reasonable to ask, to what extent did NATO really spur Russia's retaliatory reaction; and equally reasonable to ponder over whether Russia's response was proportionate (hint: it wasn't), it would be unreasonable to deny that the amplification of NATO's scope had naught to do with the propensity and relative appetite for violence in the Kremlin.
The second force, then, constituted Russia. More specifically, Putin's Russia. Putin's entire cult-of-personality, with which he bludgeoned his opposition into submission and drew significant support from the masses, was built upon two critical elements – a projection of hyper-masculine strength abroad, and an assertion of hyper-masculine sturdiness, as a custodian of the people, domestically. Both, in turn, coincided in the form of an exhaustively revanchist and nationalistic foreign policy, one centred around pinning the malaise of Russia on a foreign "enemy", and spending the remainder of his political advocacy and career championing himself as the sole antidote to the foe. Putin had by and large succeeded in doing so through a mixture of fabricating, amplifying, and addressing genuine threats to Russia's regional geopolitical dominance. His decision to invade Ukraine, when interpreted under this light, was hence all the more rational at the time – though with the recent halts and stunting to the army's advancement, perhaps Putin would indeed have good grounds for rethinking his approach to the invasion.
The final factor, and one that is oft-dismissed and -overlooked, concerns the agency of the Ukraianian state and its politicians. To be very clear, no action whatsoever on the part of a sovereign state – unless it is grossly illegal or egregious – should merit a bellicose, full-blown military invasion as an allegedly proportionate response. Yet to dismiss Ukraine's causal role – purely from the perspective of identifying the causes and run-up to the ongoing crisis – would be to trivialise and ignore the room for ascribing to the Ukrainian people agency, agency for acting and speaking out differently and vocally. Here, it was apparent that Zelensky had sought to rebuke Russia's proposal, that Ukraine had kept itself as a mere "neutral state" – for Zelensky and the people he represented, such a proposal would amount to a denigrating act of appeasement, and one for which they were willing to pay the price of eschewing.
Through the interaction of these three forces, we have with us the precipice – we may well be standing at the cusp of a new World War; this time, however, it sure won't be Cool (or Cold), unfortunately.