The attempted murder of a Russian banker in London last week was a shocking reminder of how easily the problems of other countries can bring violence to our streets.
We live in an increasingly open world, and while the benefits to trade and culture are obvious and welcome, there is a dark side to globalisation that cannot be ignored. As a consequence the government would be mistaken to think that we can reduce our foreign policy to bilateral mercantilism.
Our interests include not only commerce and security, but also the quality of governance and law enforcement in the countries with which we have close ties.
In the space of two decades, the UK has become one of the most important centres of Russian life outside Russia itself. Estimates of the numbers of Russians living here have been put in the hundreds of thousands and rising fast.
The most famous are oligarchs who buy football clubs, newspapers and luxury property. Others belong to a growing community of dissidents and political refugees afraid to return home and offered protection by the British courts. Many more are young students and travellers seeking the opportunities of work and education abroad. This has led to an entangling of affairs that belies the occasionally fraught relations found at a governmental level. Members of the Russian business elite often feel safer keeping one foot and much of their wealth abroad, and London has become a favoured destination.
The trend for Russian businesses to frame contracts in English law means that around half or more of the cases heard in our commercial courts in recent times have related to Russia or other former Soviet countries. The case involving Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky, expected to reach a verdict soon, is a prominent example. This offers lucrative work for many British law firms and provides Russian companies with a degree of legal certainty that would otherwise be lacking. But the presence of Russian nationals who use the UK as a haven, including from their own government, is also a source of diplomatic tension and a challenge to our domestic security.
Sometimes political and financial scores from the home country are settled outside the law using violence on British soil, as with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and again with last week's gun attack in east London. This raises important questions about how to shape an effective policy towards Russia and whether it makes sense to set aside difficult issues for diplomatic convenience.
The government has invested a lot of effort in trying to create a stronger bilateral relationship focused on trade and investment. No doubt the government has been influenced by the partial success of President Obama's reset policy and wants to achieve a similar result.
But there are two problems with this. The first is that we do not have the assets to replicate the strategic nature of the US-Russia relationship in offering prestige as an incentive to co-operation. The second is that, as a European country, we are less able to insulate ourselves from Russia's domestic problems than the US. Moreover, London is one of biggest centres for the Russian elite outside of their country.
Issues to do with democratic standards, human rights, relations with neighbouring countries and Russia's behaviour as an energy supplier have a much greater impact on us, either directly or through the nexus of relations that binds us to the rest of our continent.
So our relationship with Russia can't just be reduced to a series of business transactions. It also has to address real and unresolved issues about the nature of the Russian state, the way it relates to its own people and its willingness to adhere to the rule of law. The dismantling of Yukos oil, the refusal of the Russian authorities to cooperate over the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the appalling circumstances of Sergei Magnitsky's death in state custody, are three cases among many that raise serious concerns.
The government should be working with other countries to put these issues high on the agenda of our dealings with Russia instead of continuing to brush them under the carpet. President-elect Vladimir Putin must be held to his pre-election promises to tackle corruption. Cooperation on trade, investment and economic modernisation should be conditional on measurable progress in improving property rights and the rule of law. The government should use Russia's forthcoming entry to the WTO to maximum legal effect in improving its business environment.
The Russian government is globally engaged and enjoys the privileges that come with being part of the international community. Our government should do much more to insist that Russia at all times behaves like a responsible global partner, and not one in which accusations of corruption and human rights abuses are rife and which risks exporting its problems onto the streets of London.
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