Newswise — In the wake of the European Union’s agreement today on broad sanctions against key Russian industries over that nation’s support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, two Cornell University researchers – one an expert on Eastern European and post-Soviet politics, and the other a scholar on the effectiveness of sanctions themselves – offer their insight into the potential success of this move, and into how that success can be defined.

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Valerie Bunce, a professor of International Studies and Government at Cornell University, is an expert on politics, international relations and conflict in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states. She applauds Europe’s bold new step toward strong sanctions, and hopes an exit strategy for Russian President Vladimir Putin will soon emerge.

She says:

“The Europeans are to be congratulated for finally joining the United States in imposing significant economic sanctions on Russia. While they are much more vulnerable, the Europeans have been strongly affected over the past two weeks by two developments: the downing of the Malaysian airliner and evidence of growing Russian support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine.

“Economic sanctions are the best approach that Europe and the U.S. can take to discourage Russia. They signal international concern over Russian actions; they target key supporters of Putin; and they have impact, especially in a time when the Russian economy is already stagnating. Sanctions have two other advantages. They can be ramped up as well as withdrawn, and they are less likely than military approaches to feed the nationalist feelings that Putin has encouraged in the Russian public.

“The key issue now in the crisis in Ukraine is whether Putin has an exit strategy. The domestic costs of his aggression against Ukraine are growing, whether we calculate those costs in terms of international public opinion against Russia or the economic burdens on an already poorly performing Russian economy. One possibility is that Putin will decide to withdraw support for the rebels once a clear case has been made by international experts that the rebels downed Malaysia flight 17.”

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Jonathan Kirshner is a professor of international political economy and the director of the Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, and an expert on the use of sanctions in international politics. He warns sanctions are a “complex political game” and analyzing their effectiveness requires more than blanket assertions for or against their use.

He says: “Economic sanctions are generally misunderstood. One trope holds that they never work. Another holds out hope that they might be a ‘magic bullet.’ The latter is not true. The former is asking the wrong question.

“The question is always – will my political interests be advanced by introducing sanctions? The answer is, sometimes yes, sometimes no.

“First, it’s not the ‘how much’ of sanctions, it’s the ‘who’ of sanctions. That is, it’s not how much damage sanctions do to the overall economy, but whose interests are at stake. Leaders are beholden to different groups. To the extent that sanctions hurt core support groups and the interests of leadership in particular, they are more likely to be effective. “Second, the weight of the sanctions alone are one hand clapping – it is impossible to assess their consequence without the other side of the story, which is: the value the target places on non-compliance. Taking Putin and Russia as an example, presumably the fate of Ukraine is an issue high on the list of national priorities. Thus in this case, sanctions are unlikely to fundamentally change behavior.

“That doesn't mean they are unwise or won't have a real political effect. In fact, it serves as a reminder that hand-waving general claims about whether sanctions ‘work’ are an extremely unhelpful guide to policy. “Sanctions are a complex, political game. They are imposed to advance political goals, and their ‘effectiveness’ should be measured by comparing political outcomes.”

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