The times, they seem to be a-changin'
The vibe at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum was distinctively different this year, with European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy making high-profile appearances.
The noises coming out of European capitals are also taking on a different tone, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier calling for a phasing out of sanctions and decrying what he called NATO "warmongering"; Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz suggesting a rapprochement with Moscow; and Italy insisting on a formal review of the European Union's policy toward Russia before agreeing to extend sanctions.
Additionally, on the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, more than 100 German intellectuals penned an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling on her to "learn the lesson from this most terrible war" and "pursue a policy of mutual understanding with Russia."
And a recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that a plurality of 48 percent of Europeans believe "having a strong economic relationship with Russia" is more important that "being tough" with Moscow in foreign-policy disputes.
Spooked by Brexit and the migrant crisis, many European politicians are increasingly concluding that a conflict on their eastern flank is the last thing they need. And lured by Kremlin cash, entrepreneurs and industrialists are chomping at the bit to get back to business as usual with Russia.
But here's the thing. Seeking to undermine European unity is business as usual for the Kremlin. It predated the Ukraine crisis and Moscow's current standoff with the West -- and it is not going to stop no matter what Brussels does now.
"The struggle against the European Union cannot end," Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, author of the books Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning, said in a recent talk.
"If sanctions are ended tomorrow," Snyder added, Russia will not stop supporting and encouraging far-right leaders like France's Marine Le Pen and Britain's Nigel Farage.
"They won't stop inviting the Nazis of Europe to St. Petersburg for annual conferences. If sanctions stop tomorrow, all that stuff continues because the problem with Europe is fundamentally a domestic problem for Russia. The existence of Europe is a domestic problem for Russia."
Put another way, Vladimir Putin regime's problem isn't with what Europe is doing -- but with what Europe is.
Europe presents a transparent and democratic model of governance close to Russia's borders that directly challenges the authoritarian kleptocracy in the Kremlin.
The European Union provides a model of integration based on consensus that is far more appealing than Moscow's, which is based on coercion.
And the EU has a magnetic pull on Russia's neighbors, undermining Putin's dream of a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space.
And as long as that remains the case, as long as Europe remains Europe, Putin's war on Europe will continue.
Indeed, in a recent column for Bloomberg, political commentator Leonid Breshidsky noted that despite Putin's efforts to charm the Europeans at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, "the Russian regime is not thawing, and there's no retreat from its geopolitical assertiveness or its dogged economic statism."
Nor is there any retreat from the active measures designed to sow division and discord in Europe.
These include efforts to manipulate the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, providing covert -- and sometimes overt -- support to the far right and extreme left, and financing "alternative" online media outlets across the continent that aim to undermine faith in European institutions.
"As long as Putin is in power, they are not going to stop trying to undo the European Union," Snyder said.