PRESIDENT Joe Biden, unlike his predecessor, is at least prepared to declare publicly that murdering people is bad. I’m not sure that it amounts to all that much, though.

He has said that there will be “consequences” if the dissident Alexei Navalny, previously poisoned by the Russian security services and, at the time of writing, on hunger strike and very ill in prison, dies. President Biden has expelled ten diplomats, in response to allegations of computer hacking in the US elections, and announced a series of sanctions, including a ban on American banks buying Russian sovereign debt.

This is more robust than Donald Trump’s reply, in 2017, to the suggestion that Vladimir Putin was a killer (which was “So? There are a lot of killers”) but it doesn’t seem likely that the Russian president need be particularly worried.

President Biden – and, in fairness to him, almost all other leaders of supposedly democratic countries – confines himself to this sort of mid-level objection, rather than any significant action. Despite the fact that Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, and is lining up its armed forces to challenge the rest of Ukraine, there’s only been some vague waffle about “dialogue”. Even this, however, is better than Germany, which is bending over backwards to give Mr Putin anything he wants in exchange for a new Gazprom pipeline.

You may point out that the same craven attitude is true of the West’s relationship with plenty of other countries led by despotic or murderous leaders: Saudi Arabia, which recently had a journalist hacked to pieces; China, currently engaged in the genocide of Uighur Muslims, or the host of places, from Belarus to Iran, and Cuba to Myanmar, with appalling records on human rights.

But, even measured against the high bar set by other ghastly dictators, President Putin stands out. Not so much because he’s obviously corrupt, or clearly working against the interests of democratic nations, or even because routinely employs murder to get rid of his opponents, but because he quite blatantly doesn’t care that other nations might object to, for example, the poisoning of their own citizens in their own countries.

Mr Putin, whose grandfather was Lenin’s cook, may be a post-Communist leader but, having run his country unchallenged for more than two decades, can afford to be as autocratic as his Tsarist or General Secretary predecessors. He’s popular with his electorate, but then so were Hitler and Stalin with a lot of their citizens. Despite his bare-chested outings on horseback and notorious sensitivity to jibes about his stature, he doesn’t seem to possess a politician’s sense of public image; instead, his priority is the exercise of raw power.

That’s because his background was with an organisation that operated without any challenge to its use of fear and violence. He was in the KGB from 1975 until shortly after the fall of Communism, and one of his first jobs as a politician was running the FSB. Russia may have progressed – if that’s the word – from authoritarian Communism to autocratic gangsterism, but Mr Putin’s methods have remained much the same.

If anything, he seems quite pleased when it’s made clear that the Russian security services will go anywhere to kill anyone that incurs his disapproval. An early example was the killing, in 2004, of the Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, blown up in Qatar by the GRU. At that time, Russian state murders on foreign soil were relatively rare, and there was usually some effort to keep them low-key; the umbrella murder of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in the late 1970s was regarded as extremely unusual.

Yandarbiyev’s assassination by car bomb, in a Middle Eastern country, was so unprecedented that there was speculation – not about who had done it, for no one had much doubt about that, but about what message it was intended to convey. The best explanation I remember hearing at the time came from the then chief foreign leader writer of The Daily Telegraph, Simon Scott Plummer, who said: “It demonstrates reach.”

The two “sports nutritionists” who in 2018 came to inspect the world-famous 404ft spire of Salisbury cathedral, poisoning a British intelligence agent and his daughter with the nerve agent Novichok while they were at it (and being responsible for the later death of another British woman) were, we discovered over the weekend, earlier responsible for blowing up an arms depot in the Czech Republic and trying to poison someone in Bulgaria. No one even seems to have made much pretence about their status as state assassins.

Indeed, the use of radioactive materials and the sort of chemical weapons to which only governments have access, when so many easier and less easily detected ways of bumping people off are available, seems designed to rub this point in. It’s not just that Mr Putin doesn’t care about getting caught, or the consequences. He actively wants everyone to know that his opponents are marked men and women.

While this sort of naked threat and assertion of power is clearly effective with individuals and domestically, when it comes to international relations Mr Putin’s position is nowhere near as dominant – even if the supine attitude of lots of Western leaders might lead him to think otherwise.

We can all speculate on President Trump’s motives for letting Putin off the hook so often, but the truth is that Russia, though immense in size and strategic importance, is not so powerful economically. It is one of the most unequal economies in the world: the average standard of living is lower than places like Greece or Poland, while 110 people own 35 per cent of all the country’s assets.

Sanctions – particularly the Magnitsky variety directed at individuals – do have a significant effect, particularly since almost all of the productive parts of the Russian economy (other than Gazprom) is in the hands of billionaire oligarchs, whose competing interests are mediated by Mr Putin.

His strongman act plays well with them only while it suits their financial interests. When it comes to trying to intimidate other countries, Mr Putin has less clout than when threatening his own citizens, and many of his gambits are a test to see how much he can get away with. It would be good if we started making the limits of that clearer.

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