The Times carried a well argued leader column on the Litvinenko Inquiry the other day which made the case that President Putin is pursuing a completely hard-nosed strategy in relation to Russian interests.
In other words, a strategy that does not shy away from the cold-blooded murder of an irritating Russian exile in the shape of Alexander Litvinenko, with the leading suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, now firmly ensconced as a pro-Putin supporter in the Russian Duma (Parliament).
Now it is very difficult for civilised countries to respond adequately to this kind of barbarism because the UK was never going to respond in kind or take some kind of military action over the death of just one man.
But Litvinenko's deliberate poisoning and terrible death was shameful act that ought not to be allowed to go unpunished in a just and civilised world.
The Litvinenko Inquiry
The belated announcement of an inquiry into the murder of the Russian exile demonstrates the failure of appeasement
The manner of the timing of the announcement, coming five days after the shooting down of MH17, has led to suggestions that the inquiry is a punishment for the Russians. The government has denied this, but in some ways it might be preferable if this cynical interpretation were true. At least it would mean that the inquiry was not the result of the coalition having run out of options and finally being forced to accede to a basic demand for justice and accountability.
The Litvinenko case, and how Britain and others responded to it, is not just important in itself. It was a harbinger of the position that the international community finds itself in now as it attempts to deal with Vladimir Putin’s transformation of his country into what can only be described as a semi-rogue state.
Mr Litvinenko, should anyone need to be reminded, was a man who had made enemies among the shady strata surrounding the Russian elite. In November 2006 he was poisoned while he was having drinks in a London hotel. The agent was polonium 210, and the radioactive trail clearly implicated a Russian national, Andrei Lugovoi. Mr Lugovoi had returned to Russia, and the Russian government resisted British calls for him to be extradited. Instead it suggested, ludicrously, that he be tried in Russia. Subsequently the untried Mr Lugovoi was elected to the Russian parliament where he sits even now, lending his vociferous support to Mr Putin.
We reported earlier this year that Sir Robert Owen, the coroner of the pending inquest, had seen documents that, in his words, “establish a prima facie case as to the culpability of the Russian state”. And part of the problem with any investigation is that it might well hinge on information coming from our own secret services and implicating Russian officials.
But what was clear in 2006 and is horribly evident now, was that Russia did not consider itself bound by the same rules of behaviour that bind the countries of the West. When Britain’s demands for extradition were refused, and after we had expelled four diplomats, Russia responded by hounding the employees of the British Council using quasi-judicial means.
In 2011, after four years of coldness, David Cameron went to Moscow full of rosy-cheeked optimismto mend fences and thaw hearts. We would agree to disagree about Litvinenko and in the meantime we would resume friendly relations, and, not least, friendly trade relations.
So Mr Putin got what he wanted and Britain abjectly failed to get what it wanted. There has been no trial, as yet no inquest and, until this week, no inquiry into the murder of Mr Litvinenko. What lesson the Russians learnt from this and other episodes has been clear in the past few months. Mr Putin expects to be able to behave with impunity, right up to and including invading the territory of his neighbour, in the expectation that the West will moan for a few months and then shut up and trade.
Now, as the bodies of the MH17 victims travel westward and fighting consumes Donetsk, it must be obvious that this strategy of effective appeasement has been a moral and practical failure.