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Will the West's Russia sanctions do anything to damage or deter Putin?

Analysts say strong sanctions will bring economic pain to Russia. But there is little hope they can change the course of events on the ground in Ukraine.

After months of threats, the United States and its allies moved swiftly to sanction Russia after President Vladimir Putin ordered troops into eastern Ukraine, a move President Joe Biden said amounted to “the beginning of a Russian invasion.”

The question now is whether those measures will do anything to damage — or deter — the Russian leader, who has taken Europe to the brink of a devastating new conflict.

The first salvo of Western sanctions targeted large Russian banks, oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin, a key gas pipeline and a host of other individuals. The European Union is set to unveil its own, with reports suggesting they may go even further.

But while leaders in Washington, Europe and Asia were able to present a united front against Moscow's aggression, officials and analysts say it's unlikely the sanctions will do anything to deter Putin from pursuing a large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“Putin’s not thinking about the stock market next week in Russia," Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 2012 to 2014, said on CNBC Tuesday.

"He doesn’t even care about the oligarchs that are going to be hurt by these sanctions. He cares about where he’s going to be in the history books 30, 40 years from now,” McFaul added.

“If you take an aggressive wrong act there has to be a response, but I think we are naïve if we think that response is going to change his calculation.”

Putin showed no signs of stepping back from the confrontation in the face of the global backlash, with Moscow saying that the long-anticipated sanctions "cannot solve a thing.”

“It is hard to imagine that there is a person in Washington who expects Russia to revise its foreign policy under a threat of restrictions,” Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said in a post on the Russian Embassy’s Facebook account Tuesday night.

He warned: “The United States will not be left out, with its ordinary citizens feeling the consequences of the price increase in full.”

The possibility of imminent war in Ukraine has raised fears of widespread energy shortages and global economic chaos.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Twitter that Europeans could expect higher energy prices after Germany took action to halt the regulatory approval process for the crucial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Russia’s own advance preparation, in particular its build up of more than $600 billion in international reserves, will also help it weather the sanctions.

Despite those bullish remarks, Western officials and analysts say strong sanctions will bring economic pain to Russia. But there is little hope they can change the course of events on the ground, where a conflict appeared increasingly likely.

“Sanctions cannot stop Russia from invading Ukraine,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said on the BBC Tuesday. They could, however, hinder Russia’s development in the same way that the Soviet Union fell behind the West before its collapse, he added.

None of the sanctions announced so far directly targets Putin himself.Alexey Nikolsky / AFP - Getty Images

Given that Biden has ruled out military action, sanctions are a key weapon for the West in combatting Russian moves, according to McFaul. Starting small means that the U.S. and its allies still have somewhere to go if the situation deteriorates.

"He hasn’t thrown everything yet that they are planning because they expect that this invasion will escalate and they want to have something to do when it finally does escalate as widely as the president himself has already warned the American people," McFaul said Wednesday on NBC's "TODAY" show.

Ukrainian officials, who moved to introduce a state of emergency Wednesday, have called on the West to move quickly with tougher sanctions and not wait for further Russian aggression.

“Now the pressure needs to step up to stop Putin. Hit his economy and cronies. Hit more. Hit hard. Hit now,” wrote Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Twitter Wednesday morning.

Some Republicans in Congress criticized the U.S. sanctions, while opposition politicians in London and elsewhere also said the measures did not hit hard enough.

Brian O’Toole, a former senior Treasury Department official and now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, told NBC News that it was encouraging that the U.S. and European governments were presenting a united front. But he expressed concern that Moscow may interpret these first moves as a sign the West remains hesitant to pursue tougher sanctions.

“They will have impact, undoubtedly," he said, "but I fear that Putin may assess the West does not have the stomach to impose truly significant measures."

O'Toole added: "I hope that time proves him wrong, as it is clear he has no intention of stopping with just taking the breakaway territories.”

With larger sanctions likely to come should the crisis escalate, tough new measures targeting those closest to the Russian president may be the best way for the U.S. and its allies to keep Putin in check, according to Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the RUSI think tank in London.

“At the moment we are like a puppy jogging along behind, we need to respond and go beyond,” he said.

“If we can get in front of him and make him realize there has been a big hammer blow, then maybe we have a chance.”