When today's pundits talk about Russia as the greatest threat since Hitler's Germany, it's time for a look at Russian history.
The first crucial piece of information in the present context is the fact that Russia began in Kiev. Kievan Rus was "a loose federation of East Slavic tribes in Europe from the late 9th to the mid-13th century, under the reign of the Rurik dynasty. The modern peoples of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia all claim Kievan Rus' as their cultural ancestors," Wikipedia reports. No rational discussion of the present crisis is possible without this knowledge.
Image taken from page 457 of 'Russia, Past and Present. Adapted from the German (.Das heutige Russland.) of Lankenau and Oelnitz by Henrieta M. Chester. With map and illustrations'
(Image by The British Library) Permission Details DMCA
Now picture the world's largest landmass, (nine time zones to the US's three), much of which lies in the same northerly latitudes as Canada, but, in a crucial difference, with access to the ocean only on its Eastern tip, while the areas bordering on southern seas are inhabited by Muslim peoples. Add now that Russia is the seat of Orthodox Christianity, which in the 13th century was repeatedly attacked from the Roman Catholic and Protestant North and West. (Sergei Eisenstein made a famous film about the attacks by the Teutonic Knights, titled Alexander Nevsky.) According to Wiki, to the Orthodox Church and most princes, the fanatical Northern Crusaders seemed a greater threat to the Russian way of life than the Mongols, who protected and assisted Alexander Nevsky in fighting them.
Russia had been subjugated by Ghengis Khan's Golden Horde's from 1223 to 1240, to which it paid tribute for another four hundred years. For more on the lasting impact of that subjugation see my book review of TIbor Szamuely's The Russian Tradition . (In a similar scourge, the Ottoman empire took over half of Europe, their advance only halted with an unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1529. More on that later in this article.)
Starting with Kievan Rus, Russia, Poland, the Baltic princes, Sweden and Iran fought each other for centuries, so there is no historical record of a specifically 'aggressive' Russia. For hundreds of years, today's Baltic countries, facing onto the northern sea, were Russian principalities, as were Ukraine - and at times, Poland. Following are excerpts devoted to Russia's interactions with its neighbors, from the Wikipedia article on Russian history: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Russia:
In the 15th century, the grand princes of Moscow went on gathering Russian lands to increase the population and wealth under their rule. The most successful practitioner of this process was Ivan III who laid the foundations for a Russian national state. Ivan competed with his powerful northwestern rival, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, for control over some of the semi-independent Upper Principalities in the Dnieper and Oka River basins.
Ivan refused to pay further tribute to the Tatars and initiated a series of attacks that opened the way for the complete defeat of the declining Golden Horde. Ivan and his successors sought to protect the southern boundaries of their domain against attacks of the Crimean Tatars and other hordes. Although his long Livonian War for the control of the Baltic coast and access to sea trade ultimately proved a costly failure, Ivan managed to annex the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia. ". Through these conquests, Russia acquired a significant Muslim Tatar population and emerged as a multiethnic and multiconfessional state. Also around this period, the mercantile Stroganov family established a firm foothold at the Urals and recruited Russian Cossacks to colonize Siberia.
At the end of Ivan IV's reign the Polish--Lithuanian and Swedish armies carried out a powerful intervention in Russia, devastating its northern and northwest regions. During the Polish--Muscovite War (1605--1618), Polish--Lithuanian forces reached Moscow. The Seven Boyars, a group of Russian nobles recognized the Polish prince WÅadysÅaw IV Vasa as the Tsar of Russia on 6 September [O.S. 27 August] 1610. The Poles entered Moscow on 21 September [O.S. 11 September] 1610, setting the city on fire. This "Time of Troubles" resulted in the loss of much territory to the Polish--Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Russo-Polish war, as well as to the Swedish Empire in the Ingrian War. Fortunately for Moscow, its major enemies, the Polish--Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden, were engaged in a bitter conflict with each other, which provided Russia the opportunity to make peace with Sweden in 1617 and to sign a truce with the Polish--Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1619. Recovery of lost territories started in the mid-17th century, when the Khmelnitsky Uprising in Ukraine against Polish rule brought about the Treaty of Pereyaslav concluded between Russia and the Ukrainian Cossacks.
According to the treaty, Russia granted protection to the Cossacks state in the Left-bank Ukraine, formerly under Polish control. This triggered a prolonged Russo-Polish War which ended with the Treaty of Andrusovo (1667), where Poland accepted the loss of Left-bank Ukraine, Kiev and Smolensk.
Peter the Great's first military efforts were directed against the Ottoman Turks. His aim was to establish a Russian foothold on the Black Sea by taking the town of Azov. Peter still lacked a secure northern seaport except at Archangel on the White Sea, whose harbor was frozen nine months a year. Access to the Baltic was blocked by Sweden, whose territory enclosed it on three sides. Peter's ambitions for a "window to the sea" led him in 1699 to make a secret alliance with the Polish--Lithuanian Commonwealth and Denmark against Sweden resulting in the Great Northern War.