Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine has left western diplomats scrabbling for sanctions that won’t backfire on to the rest of Europe and America. The foreign secretary William Hague said Russia must ‘face consequences and costs’. When a policy paper was photographed that said the UK should not support trade sanctions or close London’s financial centre to Russians, Mr Hague said it did not reflect government policy. But punishing Russia is sure to be an expensive business.

Just before the Crimean War, when Russia invaded Turkish Moldovia and Wallachia in 1853, a Spectator editorial took a hard line; Russia should be punished on principle.

The present operations of Russia proceed entirely upon the old fashion of coercing other states into an alliance against their likings if not against their convictions. Not- withstanding her diplomatic cleverness, Russia is by no means a fair type of European intelligence or honesty… Like a noble in the middle ages, the Czar seeks to bribe or bully his betters into standing by him; and hitherto the minor states of Europe, if not those of the first rank, have even been obliged to sacrifice their own clear perception and their conscience to their policy or their fear. Let the principle and practice be established, that the individual shall not be suffered to dictate, but that the Powers of Europe will unite to sustain the common law of Europe, and every state would be released from this species of coercion. In other words, the conscience of Europe would be the high court of appeal, under whose protection every state should be independent, and no crowned man should make it afraid.

But by 1927, the magazine had mellowed. Diplomatic relations between Russia and Britain were closed off after the Soviet Union was accused of subversive activities. This time, the Spectator’s stance was similar to the plans in document that was caught on camera this week.

The British people are not really as afraid of cartoons in foreign newspapers as they are of losing a potential foreign market. They might subsequently come to the conclusion that, for the sake of obtaining a purely party advantage, the Government had taken a step which sensibly diminished a portion—albeit a small one—of their foreign trade, and jeopardized world peace. And if they were to come to such a conclusion, the Government would have short shrift.

More recently, the magazine has written often about corruption and state-sponsored crimes committed under President Putin. Pavel Stroilov warned Cameron in 2011 to keep his distance from Putin. Alexander Litvinenko, the KGB rebel who was poisoned in 2006, had warned in 2002 that the West was making a terrible mistake in going along with Putin in exchange for his cooperation in the war on terror, he said. Russian dissidents today agree; one, Evgeny Legedin, warned against any business links at all:

“Merely by coming to shake hands with the dictator at such a moment, you inevitably risk accusations of appeasement. The only sensible way to deal with these gangsters is a complete boycott.”

In a 2010 article entitled There’s something rotten in the state of Russia, Owen Matthews outlined some of the worst abuses in Russia, including the death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who was trying to expose a scam allegedly perpetrated by corrupt officials. It prompted a letter from Jeremy Putley:

Considering the volume of available evidence establishing the real nature of Russia today, the question must be: how can it be ethical for foreigners to invest in Russia? The death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky, Hermitage’s lawyer, was surely a consequence of pursuing the profit motive beyond proper bounds.

Tags: Eastern Europe, History, Russia, Soviet Union, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin