For anyone who ever hoped Russia could become a liberal, free-market democracy, the grim trial last month of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who was once his country’s richest man, offered a slender solace—it was widely and loudly condemned.

David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, compared the prosecution to that of the late poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky. Joe Nocera, writing about the business and economic consequences in The New York Times (whose global edition is the International Herald Tribune), described the Kremlin’s tactics as “boneheaded.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the case would “have a negative impact on Russia’s reputation,” and particularly on its “investment climate.” What was notable about this chorus of foreign criticism was the implication that, even judged by the Kremlin’s own standards of realpolitik, the treatment of Mr. Khodorkovsky was a mistake. Moscow’s leaders want to restore Russia’s wealth and greatness: Western assertions that the Khodorkovsky trial had hurt Russia’s reputation and would discourage foreign investment suggested that the Kremlin was harming its own cause.

But some investors, economists and political analysts are drawing a different, and much starker, conclusion: The Khodorkovsky verdict was an inevitable and logical act of self-preservation by a regime that is fully and lucratively in control of Russia.

In this reading, there is nothing accidental about Mr. Khodorkovsky’s continued imprisonment. It is, instead, the clearest possible statement of the rules of Kremlin capitalism, and of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s confidence that, at least as long as Siberia has oil, there is plenty of private capital willing to play.

“Within Russia, everyone who matters understands exactly what the Kremlin is trying to say – that there is no one above the rule of the Kremlin,” said Roland Nash, co-founder of Verno Capital and a 16-year veteran of doing business in Moscow.