For the last few weeks commentators, politicians and many sectors of the western public have been perhaps surprised by Vladimir Putin's somewhat reconciliatory tone towards the U.S. and the West. His moderation of words on Ukraine during his recent public appearances seems to suggest a change not just in tone but policy. While most are just puzzled and hoping that this is for real, the appeasers are rejoicing, suggesting that this must result in a change of our attitudes immediately. They will argue for the lifting of sanctions. The songs of peace are beautiful. I can see the happy faces in the celebrating crowd, kissing and hugging, holding placards saying "the war is over."
Not so fast.
Putin knows he needs to take a break. His disruptive efforts have worked in many ways. He has greatly contributed to a divide within Europe and in many ways across the Atlantic. He has infiltrated the political and economic elites of a number of countries, primarily the most vulnerable ones in Central and Eastern Europe by stealth. Knowing that time might be running out on the way he sells his gas, he has made good use of the dependency of a number of countries on his energy supplies. He has called into action the Russian sleeper-cells across Europe, which for years withdrew into their day-jobs during the transitions of the first fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but are now sewing dissent and causing trouble and confusion.
We should be very cautious. We cannot forget about the ever worsening situation in Eastern Ukraine and the continuation of his destabilization tactics for the country as a whole. We cannot be OK with the terrible damage of Russian foreign practices and the corruption lacing its energy and business deals, which poison and distort the economies of transition countries and beyond. We should not shut our eyes to the bullying of the opposition, his efforts to squash dissent in Russia and politically control its judiciary. Are we fine with the harassment of LGBT people? Have we forgotten the murder of Sergei Magnitsky?
Putin has managed to make inroads into our information space. He exploits and abuses our respect for free speech -- a contrast to Russia where independent voices are stifled and cut off aggressively. We have not heeded the advice and warnings of those worried about the dangers of information warfare, in which we are present with wooden swords against mechanized units. We can do better than that.
It would be detrimental and dangerous to fall for his siren's song. Only a show of determination and perseverance will work and make a difference. We need to be firm in rejecting his worldview of spheres of influence and insist, without any reservations, on our value-based approach. We should take our clues from the Nordic countries, which are responding by firming up their defenses, strengthening their transatlantic links and enhancing regional cooperation. They are not anti-Russian. They are anti-bullying. Chancellor Merkel's strong stance on sanctions must prevail and temptations to lift them must be resisted and tied to proof on the ground. We should also watch the Baltic countries, which react by drawing closer to the "center" rather than idling on the "periphery" of Europe. They happen to know Russia inside-out. We cannot fall for the apologists in Eastern Europe; the likes of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary.
So do not be fooled by Putin's overtures, they are not for real. Have no doubt: Putin's view and envy of the West has not changed. He understands that the "enemy" is a lot stronger, a lot more resilient and perhaps a lot smarter than he had thought, despite the deep divides in the west he had aimed at exploiting. His real intention is to put the West back to sleep, retool and find new ways to continue his efforts to disrupt and weaken us.
He is unapologetic for the gains of the liberal democratic model in Europe, especially in the former Soviet republics and former satellites. He has not given up the idea that Russia's rise as a global force to be reckoned with is not through modernization, democracy, the unleashing of the power of the freedom of its citizens, the rule of law and respect for individual human rights. His thinking, as long as he is around, will be that Russia can be big if it divides Europe and if he can drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies.
He is dead wrong about that in the long run. But given the enormous challenges Europe faces today, we cannot afford for Mr.Putin to be successful in the short term either. So beware of this dangerous wolf in sheep's clothing.