On Saturday 7 October 2006, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was just about to publish a report on torture and murder in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
Under Presidents Yeltsin and Putin, Russia fought two savage wars against Chechen separatists; Politkovskaya had championed both the civilian population in Chechnya, who suffered atrocities at the hands of Russian forces, and the mothers of Russian conscripts who were denied information about how their sons died.
At some point in the day, which happened to be Putin's 54th birthday, Politkovskaya visited a supermarket near her home in Moscow and was trailed home by a man with a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. He was captured on CCTV entering her apartment block, where he carried out a clinical killing.
It took three days for President Putin to react to the international outcry that followed the assassination of one of Russia's few remaining independent journalists. When he was finally prodded into a response, Putin claimed that Politkovskaya's work had "minimal" influence and dismissed her murder as an attempt to stir up anti-Russian feeling.
In June this year, four men were finally charged in connection with the assassination: two Chechens, a police officer and a lieutenant-colonel in the FSB, the organisation which succeeded the KGB, who is accused of supplying the reporter's address to her killers. But there has yet to be a trial, and the hard fact is that most murders of reporters in Russia go unpunished; 21 were killed during Putin's eight-year presidency, making it the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists. There had been an earlier attempt to disable or kill Politkovskaya two years before her death, when she was poisoned on a flight to North Ossetia to cover the Beslan school siege. She awoke in hospital to discover that her medical records had gone missing.
Less than a month after she died, violence against opponents of the regime spilled over into London when assassins targeted the author and former KGB man Alexander Litvinenko with the radioactive isotope polonium-210. The Russian government has refused to allow the chief suspect in Litvinenko's murder, a former KGB operative called Andrei Lugovoi, to stand trial in London.
This is 21st-century Russia, where basic human rights are regarded with contempt. The apparatus of civil society is steadily being dismantled, with local and foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) struggling to cope with onerous reporting requirements and sudden changes in their tax status. Amnesty International's most recent report on Russia says that the authorities have become increasingly intolerant of dissent or criticism, branding it as "unpatriotic", and claims that torture is widespread against detainees and prison inmates.
The authoritarian tendencies of the state were causing alarm long before Prime Minister Putin (as he now is, although no one doubts that he remains in charge) masterminded the invasion of Georgia, and Russia's behaviour there has finally forced the rest of the world to pay attention to something many world leaders would prefer to ignore.
Russia's brutal regime cut its teeth in Chechnya, where Yeltsin razed the capital city, Grozny, in the 1990s but failed to complete the job; it was Putin who unleashed a campaign of rape, torture and murder to force the Chechens into submission.
Amnesty has suggested that up to 25,000 civilians were killed in the second Chechen war and another 5,000 are missing. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled against Russia on 31 occasions over human rights violations in Chechnya. Two months ago, Human Rights Watch and other NGOs called on France to use its EU presidency to urge Russian compliance with the court's decisions.
It was President Nicolas Sarkozy of France who rushed to the region earlier this month and brokered the peace deal with Georgia. As things stand, Russia is illegally occupying territory belonging to another European nation, and doing little to prevent human rights abuses.
Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was foolish to send troops into South Ossetia at the beginning of this month, and he was displaying worrying authoritarian tendencies of his own before the current crisis. But the Russian claim to have entered South Ossetia in defence of human rights is as specious as the notion that it respects the right of minorities to self-determination, a lie exposed by the mass graves in Chechnya.
Its motive in recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia last week was pure mischief, as provocative in international terms as Britain or any other European country suddenly recognising the independence of Chechnya and it was roundly condemned by the G7 group of leading democracies.
Putin is now so isolated diplomatically that he had to solicit support from his old enemy Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus. The world immediately saw through Moscow's ploy, in contrast to Kosovo's declaration of independence earlier this year which attracted widespread support, despite being in contravention of international law.
Tomorrow, EU leaders meet at a special summit amid contradictory reports as to whether trade sanctions against Russia will be on the table, although it seems unlikely to be imposed on one of Europe's most important suppliers of oil and gas. Putin has pre-empted the meeting by accusing the US of engineering the Georgia crisis as an election ploy, a claim which deserves about as much serious consideration as his insulting remarks about the murder of Politkov-skaya. Ghastly as the Bush administration is, it cannot be blamed for every single thing that happens in the world and there is no evidence that it either wanted or precipitated this crisis, which has prompted anxious discussion about a new cold war. On the contrary, it has exposed the limits of American force, which cannot realistically be used to get the Russians out of Georgia or to defend the next former Soviet republic, probably Ukraine, on which the Kremlin sets its sights.
Anxiety levels are bound to have risen dramatically since Friday, when the Kremlin announced its intention of eventally absorbing South Ossetia into Russian territory.
EU leaders also have limited room for manoeuvre, but they should be clear in their condemnation of Russia's return to its old habit of bullying its neighbours. The argument for holding the country at arm's length might be achieved by suspending talks on a new strategic pact and barring Russia's high-powered delegation from the Council of Europe. What the EU must not do is accept the pernicious argument that it has a special right to intervene in the states which share its borders.
Two days ago, Human Rights Watch announced that satellite images showed that ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia had been torched, revealing "compelling evidence of war crimes and grave human rights abuses". This is exactly what Russian troops did in Chechnya and it reveals the ugly face of Putin's Russia, an extreme nationalist and expansionist state which Anna Politkovskaya died to expose.Reuse content