Will Vladimir Putin pay a price for his persecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

Monday, December 27, 2010; 8:07 PM

PRESIDENT OBAMA has lavished attention on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the expense of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, on the theory that Mr. Medvedev might break with the corrupt authoritarianism that Mr. Putin brought to the Kremlin. On Monday a huge blow to that policy was delivered in a monotone by a Moscow judge, who devoted more than seven hours to reading out a guilty verdict in the most important political trial of Russia's post-Soviet history.

Judge Viktor Danilkin surprised no one with the finding that former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and co-defendant Platon Lebedev were guilty of stealing $25 billion worth of oil from their own company. The charge was "absurd," as a former prime minister under Mr. Putin testified, and a bumbling prosecution team never clearly explained it, much less provided proof.

Yet Mr. Putin already announced on television 10 days ago that Mr. Khodorkovsky, a political rival who has been imprisoned since 2003, was guilty and "should sit in jail." That brazen confirmation of the trial's political orchestration seemed to embarrass Mr. Medvedev, and no wonder: The former Putin aide promised an end to "legal nihilism" when he took office in 2008.

Mr. Khodorkovsky's conviction should make clear that Mr. Medvedev's project is going nowhere. Russia remains the country of Mr. Putin - where an oil executive who sought to run his company by the standards of Western multinationals saw his firm illegally seized and handed over to state companies headed by Mr. Putin's cronies; and where the price of that executive's funding of liberal political parties and civil society groups is seven years - so far - in a Siberian prison camp. Mr. Khodorkovsky's attorneys say they expect that when the judge finally finishes reading his verdict this week, he will add up to six more years to the original eight-year sentence, meaning that Mr. Putin's nemesis will remain locked up during the next presidential campaign in 2012.

The Obama administration on Monday added its voice to the condemnations across the democratic world of Mr. Khodorkovsky's prosecution. A White House statement said the case "appears to be an abusive use of the legal system for improper ends," adding that Russia's failure to respect the rule of law "impedes its own modernization and ability to deepen its ties with the United States."

That's stronger rhetoric than this president has previously employed with Russia. But it will have little impact unless the administration acts on its hint that the good relations Moscow seeks with the West are at stake. The way to support the alternative that Mr. Medvedev supposedly represents is to enforce accountability for human rights abuses - such as sanctions against those responsible for Mr. Khodorkovsky's prosecution. Support for Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization, including congressional repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, should be put on hold.

If there are no such consequences for the Khodorkovsky case, Mr. Putin's victory will be complete - and Mr. Obama's diplomacy wasted.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company