It is easy to look at Putin’s actions in Ukraine and see it as the strange actions of a power mad tyrant. But, why is Putin threatening Ukraine?
George Friedman of Statfor predicted Russian show of force in Ukraine a few years back in one of his insightful books connecting geography to world history. His basic point is that Russia has long unprotected borders and has always needed to find some way to protect itself from attack across its borders. Since there are no physical barriers between Europe and Russia, like difficult mountains to traverse, their only alternative is to annex countries on its borders so that if countries try to invade they have to go through other countries first. Napoleon and Hitler came across open plains into Russia so the Russians have historical reasoning on their side for the necessity of buffer countries to protect it. Ukraine is one of those buffer countries. Indeed, the ideal map from a Russian military safety point of view is the old USSR where Russia is surrounded by buffer countries under its control.
Plus, of course, Ukraine is the portal to the Black Sea which is the only way Russia has access to the sea for its navy during the winters.
Another view is expressed by David Brooks who writes of a sense of destiny that Putin has expressed that dates back to Russian philosophical writers. That view is that Russia is the link between the east and the west, and it has a destiny to counter the corrupt materialism and moral weakness of the west, and to bring the east and west together with Russia being the midwife of that union. In that light, the anti-gay laws of Russia and Putin make sense in that they see acceptance of gay sex as a subset of the overt and corrupt moral weakness of promiscuity and immorality of the west.
So, Putin’s actions can be seen as both rational and moral from a Russian point of view. That is perhaps why he is doing what he is doing.
The idea that Putin is just on the "wrong side of history", as Obama said, assumes that this is about Putin stomping on the necks of people wanting to be free to rule themselves, and looks like it is a tragic misreading of Russia's actual motivations.
I would hope that negotiations can be successfully undertaken that guarantees Russian access to the Black Sea as a minimum. And it seems pretty clear that Putin sees European economic incursions into the “border” countries as an incursion of the west into Russia’s security and culture and makes it vulnerable. That fear needs to be addressed as well.
I don’t know how to convince Russia that it has nothing to fear from Europe, which has almost no military at all at this time, but the arc of history is long, and memories of Napoleon and Hitler are long too.