Even as Russian armed forces destroy much of Ukraine’s military capability and ground troops push toward the country’s major cities—with at least dozens of civilians already dead and hundreds more wounded—Vladimir Putin’s ultimate intentions remain unclear. Western officials and regional experts are urgently trying to unravel what Moscow’s goals are and how far into Ukraine he plans to go. Amid all this uncertainty, the European Union, the U.S., and numerous other countries have moved to punish Moscow by crippling Russia’s economy through sanctions, banning foreign travel, and freezing assets belonging to Putin’s cronies and other oligarchs. How bad could all of this get?

Anatol Lieven, the senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, is the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry and two other books on Russia. According to Lieven, the costs of the Russian invasion could be terrible—not just to Ukraine but to Russia as well: The Russian economy could be devastated by Western sanctions, leaving the country with few allies abroad—and could ultimately wind up dependent on China. In Lieven’s view, Putin sees the potential by invading Ukraine to finally restore the prestige of the Russian military and definitively end NATO’s eastward expansion. Putin and the Russian leadership meanwhile feel humiliated, Lieven says, by the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, wanting to see Russia recognized as equals with European powers in managing European security issues. But now that Putin has decided on a massive, deadly assault, the West can avoid a direct military response, but it has no choice other than to create major consequences.

Michael Bluhm: We know Putin is now risking devastation in Ukraine. What’s he risking for Russia?

Anatol Lieven: First, great economic damage. Sanctions since 2014 have knocked at least 1 percent off Russian economic growth. The sanctions the West is proposing will do much more damage.

Russia has built up resilience against that, but it will undoubtedly still have a grave effect. This might not directly turn into unpopularity for the regime at home. The regime is already unpopular on account of corruption, general discontent, and anger with misgovernment. If people’s economic situation gets worse, then that will fuel wider discontent. That’s a threat.

If it leads Europe to try to move beyond Russian gas—which will be very difficult in the short term, but it can manage that over some years—then Russia’s only remaining major market will be China. This will put Russia completely in China’s pocket, with implications for the price of gas, because it’ll then be a buyer’s market for China.

In the longer term, Russia will effectively become a raw-material supplier to China, which is something that the Russian elites dread—and wouldn’t be risking if they felt that the West had left them much choice in the matter.

Alexander Popov

Bluhm: How bad could this get for Ukraine itself?

Lieven: The critical question is how far Russia goes. If Russia tries to take all the Russian-speaking areas—basically half of Ukraine—then there are so many unknowns. How hard will the Ukrainians fight? If they fight it out in cities, then you will have massive destruction. Civilian casualties will make ludicrous Russia’s claims to be going to defend Russian speakers in Ukraine, because so many of the civilian dead will be ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. This might go down very badly with Russian public opinion.

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