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The ‘real threat’

Mr. Obama is right to be taking the steps he has, said Mr. Burns. Announcing a second round of sanctions last week, Mr. Obama said he had signed a new executive order that gave him the authority to impose sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy.

It is these sanctions that, if imposed, could cause significant pain to the Russian economy.

“It is a real threat, because Russia has an economy that cannot run successfully unless it is integrated with the rest of the world,” said Mr. Burns. “This is not North Korea that is content to live in isolation from the rest of the world. Russia’s economic health depends on trade and investment.”

The U.S. and European Union must carefully calibrate pressure on Moscow, say analysts.

Too little will fail to produce the outcome the West seeks: that Russia deescalate the situation and promise to stop meddling in eastern Ukraine.

Too much could cause Mr. Putin to shut off cooperation with the U.S. on important global issues, particularly on negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

Sanctions can also have the unintended consequence of producing what Carol Joy Gordon, a professor at Fairfield University, said is a “‘rally around the flag’ response, where the population of the targeted country do not view sanctions as moral leadership, but as an intervention in violation of their sovereignty.”

Senior Obama administration officials in a background call with reporters last week defended their use of sanctions, and said more measures are being crafted that would minimize the pain to the U.S. and its European partners.

“Sanctions build over time. They’re very powerful,” said a senior administration official on the call, “and people may think that they are a mere wrist slap; I can assure them that they are not.”