The sentence handed down last week to three members of the punk group Pussy Riot came as little surprise to Kremlin-watchers. The pre-trial detention, unfair trial and harsh punishment of these young women for their anti-Putin performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior was strikingly similar to the treatment meted out to Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2004.
Like the Khodorkovsky case, the Pussy Riot verdict will also likely stand as a watershed moment for the Russian Federation, and for President Vladimir Putin personally. Both played out under the full glare of the international spotlight, and both damaged the country's reputation by confirming its disrespect for the rule of law. But whereas the Khodorkovsky case shocked the world, Pussy Riot merely confirms what many already know: that Mr. Putin is not a man who will compromise, and who will never put his country's interests before his own.
Pussy Riot's prosecutors went beyond the usual hallmarks of an unfair trial to embrace an inquisitorial style of justice. Anti-Pussy Riot protestors shouted "witches!" during the reading of the verdict. Reporting from inside the courtroom, journalist Julia Ioffe recounted scenes better suited to the satires of Bulgakov than a 21st-century court: At one point, the prosecutor asked a witness if he thought the defendants could have been possessed during their performance. The question was struck because the witness was "not a medical expert."
Technocrats within the Kremlin have grumbled, mostly behind the scenes, that the trial makes the country look backwards and will harm business interests. Valery Fedotov, a deputy in Mr. Putin's United Russia party, complained that it would make Russia the "laughingstock of the world." Former finance minister and longtime Putin ally Alexei Kudrin warned that "huge damage has been done to the country's image, and to its attractiveness for investment." Others, including moderately pro-regime analysts Gleb Pavlovsky and Olga Kryshtanovskaya, have warned that the verdict could unleash a new wave of protests and ultimately work against the president.
The proximity of the Pussy Riot verdict to the scheduled announcement of Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, due to be formalized on Wednesday, captures the strange chimera that is Mr. Putin's Russia. On the one hand, the Russian Federation is taking major strides toward economic modernization. On the other, it's a country that will sentence young women to two years in prison for an irreverent political protest—after seriously debating the evidential requirements for proving demonic possession.
Of course, the nature of the Putin system has left the president with little choice but to make an example of the Pussy Riot defendants. Mr. Putin has a rather Faustian relationship with some of the more corrupt elements of the Russian Orthodox Church; the president's actions couldn't be more at odds with Christian values, yet he relies on the church's conservative elements for legitimacy.
But whatever the reaction of the international community and the pro-democracy movement, Mr. Putin has judged the example set by this case to be worth it. It's true that few in Russia genuinely support Pussy Riot. Many Russians were offended by what they saw as a desecration, and indeed the defendants apologized for this "ethical mistake." According to a poll by the independent Levada Center, 47% of Russians believe Pussy Riot violated society's moral values. Yet significantly, 54% opposed jailing them for this offense.