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A couple of noteworthy things happened to Russian President Vladimir Putin this week.

First, he got bit, badly, by sanctions. On Monday, he cancelled the South Stream gas pipeline, a $50-billion project intended to deliver Russian natural gas across the Black Sea into Europe, after the European Commission blocked it as part of a mounting campaign to isolate Russia economically for having annexed Crimea and set off a war in eastern Ukraine. On Thursday, he gave a budget speech seething with anger at the effects of sanctions: It included a 5-per-cent budget cut and a draining of Russia's strategic reserve fund to prop up the banks.

Second, he got a whole lot of love. One poll this week found that 85 per cent of Russians approve of Mr. Putin's leadership. He used Thursday's speech to try to boost that popularity further, telling Russians that the West is engineering the "collapse and dismemberment" of their country with "tragic consequences for the peoples of Russia" – but that he had heroically fought back.

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Between these two happenings, we see the puzzle of sanctions: They could politically kill him or they could make him stronger. Since we are all, as citizens in Western democracies, now involved in the punitive cutting of Russia's purse strings, we ought to ask ourselves whether, and how, this trick can work.

I recently put this question to Mikhail Kasyanov, the former Russian prime minister and leader of the anti-Putin political opposition. "For sanctions to work in Russia, they need to be very carefully calibrated," he told me. Total isolation won't work. "If they make the Russian people suffer, they could play into Putin's hand. But if they strike the interests of the top figures," he said, they could spark the beginning of a change.

Sanctions have become the politically palatable alternative to war, in an era when banishment from the global economy has a near-nuclear potential to devastate nations and societies.

International economic sanctions have been used more than 100 times over the past 30-odd years. In a major analysis titled Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, economists Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott and Kimberly Ann Elliott concluded that sanctions achieve their stated goals 34 per cent of the time, a figure that rises to 51 per cent when sanctions are used not to change regimes entirely but to change specific policies (which is basically the case with Russia).

That's a fairly decent track record, and suggests that economic warfare may be more effective than the bombs-and-guns sort – although it also suggests that sanctions are just as prone to blowback and unintended consequences.

The cases where sanctions have worked have been dramatic: It was economic isolation (including both sanctions and consumer boycotts) that persuaded South Africa's apartheid regime to give up the game in 1989. They also played a big part in persuading Myanmar's military junta to make way for civilian government in 2011.

Yet the failures are even easier to name. North Korea has been the subject of near-total sanctions for decades by most countries (including, since 2003, China) yet has only bolstered its nuclear labs and prison camps. Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has been an economic non-citizen throughout this century but has not budged. Major sanctions imposed on Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the wake of his genocidal violence against Kurds and Shiites were turned on their head when he used them to starve and punish ordinary Iraqis in an attempt, partly successful, to win sympathy. U.S. isolation of Cuba is entering its 55th year and has done nothing to reduce that country's authoritarianism; in fact, the Castro clan have used their victimhood as a popular rallying cry that has hurt the image of the United States.

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But another analysis, Sanctions as Grand Strategy by political scientist Brendan Taylor, points out the paradoxical effect of sanctions: They often have an effect, but not the one intended.

That's the case in Iran, where sanctions were unquestionably successful. As Mr. Taylor notes (and I have observed myself in Iran), Iranians blamed president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for bringing the world's economic wrath upon them. This led to his faction's defeat and the election of Hassan Rouhani on a strong mandate to seek a deal with the West. The sanctions haven't yet achieved their stated purpose – there's no nuclear deal yet – but their effects were actually larger and more significant.

That's the challenge of sanctions: When they work, subjected citizens see themselves as victims not of the sanctions themselves, but of the dubious leaders who triggered them. Getting that message right isn't easy. It's the medal-winning manoeuvre of modern economic warfare.

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