Evidently, this is still an unpopular point of view in Washington, which is too bad. We could have avoided much of the Ukraine mess by heeding my professor's lessons. In summary, most of what Ukraine has done since 1989, and much of what we have done in support of it, touches Russian where it has been raw for 500 years or more. The only wonder here is that Putin didn't send troops sooner.
Item: Someone in Washington recently called Putin a "narcissistic autocrat." That's perfectly true, and Putin is popular in Russia despite his failings because of it. The country regularly throws up narcissistic autocrats as rulers because they are a perfect reflection of a country which is narcissistic and thoroughly paranoid about all its neighbours, but the West in particular. This viewpoint has been embedded in the culture for over 1000 years, since the days of Kyivan Rus.
Item: That's right, Kyivan Rus. Ukraine isn't some foreign entity swallowed up by Russia Cold War style: it's the original Russia. When its ruling house was conquered by upstarts from Moscow, the upstarts were at pains to assimilate into the older nation, not the other way around. Western initiatives in modern Ukraine cross a hot, red line with Russia. They feel profoundly threatened by nearly every move a tone-deaf US has made in Ukraine since 1989.
Item: Borders in Eastern Europe have long been relatively abstract, and no borders have been more abstract than Ukraine's. It has had the geographic stability of Silly Putty since the Middle Ages, chiefly because it's steppe and swamp: Perfectly flat and defensible only along its rivers, and those too became liabilities when the Vikings showed up. It's hard unless you live there to put a finger on the map and say "this is Russian and this is Ukrainian." It is that, along with the ill-feelings generated in the 20th Century, that makes dividing Ukraine much more difficult than it seems
Item: To understand why Ukraine is independent now, you have to go back to the 1917 Revolution and the expectation of emerging nationalistic groups that they would be able to form their own nation. Soviet Russia didn't see it that way and kept control (especially brutal under Stalin) until the Nazi invasion of 1941. Encouraged by the Nazis, large numbers of Ukrainians sided with the invaders, which Russians elsewhere have never forgotten nor forgiven. Collaboration was nowhere more thorough than among the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim nationality of mixed origin. After peace in 1945, the entire Tatar nation was exiled to Siberia. They have returned to Crimea in large numbers since 1989, and will not welcome Putin's Russians with open arms. Their presence, and Russia's sorry record with other Muslim nationalities, explains to some degree why Putin is walking on eggs in Crimea.
Item: Ever since the Princes of Moscow began running the show, one standing obsession of Russian foreign policy has been securing of warm-water ports. Although Russia now controls most of the northern coast of the Black Sea east of Crimea, the obsession originally focused on this peninsula, and Russia's naval presence on the Black Sea centres there. It's hard to imagine what possessed Russia to make even the compromises they did with Ukraine over Crimea.
A commentator I heard this morning was astonished by the anti-Western feeling he encountered in his recent trips to Moscow. I'd say that's the rule, not the exception. The West has been dense about this since the days of Peter the Great, and remains dense. Any Western policy that doesn't take this and other Russian sore spots into account is likely either to complicate matters or make them much worse. We'd do better to make a bigger effort to listen to both sides.