04/04/2014 09:13 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

Has Our Window of Opportunity Just Closed?

Twenty five years ago Gyula Horn and Alois Mock the Hungarian and Austrian foreign ministers at the time cut the barbed wire separating the two countries and two worlds: the free West and the Moscow dominated Eastern Europe. They put a huge crack on the Wall of Divide. It was the result of an economically weakened Russia, an emboldened Eastern Europe, western perseverence and perhaps a Russian leadership, which had a temporary moment of enlightenment, one which for a very short while saw its future in the West. For an infinitely small time in history, a window of opportunity was opened, and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe walked away from communism and command economy towards democracy and market economy based on the rule of law.

It was not a foregone conclusion that the Russians would not intervene. We were holding our breath in fear: when will they run down our country again, like they did in 1956? While Gorbachev was saying and doing the right things, his position within the Soviet leadership was unclear. The sword of Damocles hung over us.

It does not take much imagination to see what would have happened, had a less tolerant politician, like Vladimir Putin, emerged as the Soviet leader at the time. He would have lent a "fraternal hand" to some equally young and energetic communist leaders, in Poland and Hungary, and would have pushed back on democratic reforms and freedoms. Perhaps it is good to remind our German friends: East and West Germany would never have been reunited.

For twenty years, the West as it were, has gone on an extended holiday. Looking back, it won the Cold War with little cost. It has been taking the expansion of European style democracies for granted. It never understood the dangers posed by half-baked democracies and the possibility of backsliding and underestimated the threat of extremism in the wake of the economic crisis. The West never understood the depth of the damage done by communism to the genetic code of peoples and its reincarnation in the form of authoritarianism either. Reversal of our fortunes is possible and the aggression against the Ukraine shows how right we were to be worried!

Despite the warning signs, only a very few, mostly silent leaders in the "old democracies" could imagine that Russia would reemerge as an aggressive power, a threat to its neighbors and as a role-model for authoritarian "hybrid" regimes, as an alternative to Western democracies. Central and Eastern Europeans could. The fear of a possible Russian and home made restoration of authoritarianism of a sort, communism in disguise if you will, was alway an underlying motive in our efforts for fast track NATO and EU accession. All this is important to keep in mind when we are in search of answers to why Russia is a challenge and a threat yet again. Once we understand, that the revolutions in 1989 were just opportunistic moments, rather than a natural development, then we will also understand the Russia we are dealing with today. It is out to challenge our freedoms, our way of life. If Churchill were alive, he would give another Fulton speech. If George Kennan, was still with us , he would write another long telegram, suggesting the policy of containment.

This is not a flu, that will go away if we just stay in bed -- or rather, go back to sleep -- for a while. Appeasement is a placebo, not a remedy. What we see now is a cancer, which must be treated aggressively if necessary through a combination of "surgery and chemo". The leaders of the US and Europe, like honest and caring doctors, must tell their publics, that we have a serious problem, the treatment of which will be painful and costly, but only thus is there a hope for full recovery. Helping the Ukraine is helping ourselves, even at a huge cost, as the closer the illness the bigger the chance of contagion.

Putin has a strategy and he is in it for the long haul. He is also a better tactician than any of the Western leaders. He is taking two steps forward and one backwards. When he takes a step backwards, the West rejoices, thinking it's a result of our smart foreign policy. Trust me, he is just preparing to take the next two steps forward. We should be cautious and vigilant: Putin is not done with the West, not just yet. He will want to take revenge for the demise of the Soviet Empire, one way or another.

Unless we consolidate our own democracies, root out the first signs of cancer from within, protect the ones in the extended family under threat while we can, unless we see the present crisis with Russia as a clash of the democratic and the authoritarian way, we will end up paying a huge price.

Most unfortunately, our window of opportunity might already have closed.