The Litvinenko murder investigation, in fact, may have a profound effect on the image of President Vladimir Putin in the West much like the Chechen war of 1999 did, or the dismembering the oil company Yukos and the imprisonment of its CEO, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or the Beslan terror tragedy. Each time, Putin chose a course of action that benefited his regime in short term, but deeply hurt his country's interests in the long term.
Britain, horrified that a foe of the Kremlin could be murdered with a radioactive isotope that has left traces all over London, has vowed to pursue the Litvinenko investigation wherever "the police take it," regardless of diplomatic sensitivities. However, once the men from Scotland Yard landed in Moscow, Russian prosecutor-general Yuri Chaika bluntly spelled out the limits of the British inquiry: It's the Russians who ask questions the British just sit tight and watch. And should any Russians be discovered to have been involved, he said, they would not be extradited.
Then, on Thursday, Chaika's office announced that it had launched its own criminal probe into this "death of a Russian citizen," and that a Russian investigative team would be sent to London, where they expected "understanding and cooperation" from their British counterparts. This appeared to be something of a stunt designed to counteract growing Western indignation over Moscow's lack of enthusiasm for cooperating with the British investigation.
Still, there isn't much the West can or will do about it. Relations between Moscow and the West have rarely hinged on single, or even systematic, human rights abuses. It was not expedient for the democracies to admit the existence of Stalin's Gulag when the priority was working together to defeat Hitler. It may be no more expedient to focus on human rights issues in Putin's Russia as long as Moscow must be kept as an ally in the war on terror, and persuaded to back sanctions against Iran.
"Realpolitik" dictated, for example, that the Soviets' downing of a Korean airliner in September 1983, killing 269 people, was not allowed to significantly interfere with business as usual. And "realpolitik" eventually paid off at least for the West as the Soviet Union disappeared a few years later without a shot being fired. Today, "realpolitik" has given way to "realeconomics" who cares if Moscow bumps off its citizens in Chechnya or elsewhere as long as the oil and natural gas are flowing from Russia? The West reacts most loudly when its investments in Russia are endangered.
This Western attitude is sensible, and probably the only one possible. If the Russian people accept this murderous political culture, no outsiders can convince them to do otherwise. It can expire only when the Russians themselves grow sufficiently resolved to abolish it if ever. The West may, however, have an urgent interest in ensuring that Russia's deadly political games are at least played on home turf, and don't spill over Russia's borders lest the killers, believing they can get away with anything, anywhere, establish precedents of nuclear or any other terrorism on foreign soil.
Russians may have come to adopt barbaric ways of settling their political and business scores, and it will be up to Russians to find a better way or else be submerged in a bloodbath of their own making. All that other countries can do, in the meantime, is try to protect themselves from the flying debris.