Despite the deliberate ambiguity of the ‘Russia Report’ published this Summer, the document made it clear that Putin was actively invested in the outcome of the 2016 Brexit Referendum. This is not surprising; Britain’s exit from the European Union presents the Bear with numerous economic and geopolitical advantages that even the most ardently chest thumping Brexiteer cannot overlook. And overlook them they should not; the reality is that Putin’s Russia seeks a divided, weakened, and fledgling Europe, a goal that Brexit will help enable.
Brexit’s most immediate perk for Russia has been the removal of one of the most adamant proponents of sanctions in the EU amid the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. This is important since the other ardent critics of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, primarily comprised of Eastern European nations, have nowhere near a comparable level of influence within the bloc. By contrast, big hitters like France and Germany have softened their tone against Russia over the years, primarily due to growing skepticism towards Trans-Atlantic cooperation and economic necessity, respectively. This does not necessarily mean that EU-mandated sanctions are breathing their last, especially if general enthusiasm for Ukrainian accession to the single market persists. With this being noted, Britain’s absence from the EU’s legislative and executive bodies will alter the course of the region’s attitudes towards Russia, which is likely to please the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, Britain will find itself relatively isolated once outside the bloc, at least in the short term. Because of this, it is not surprising that Russia has recently started moving to strengthen trade relations between the two countries. Foreign officials view Boris Johnson as a savvy, Eurosceptic populist, which as evidenced by Hungary and Turkey, is exactly the kind of leader Putin seeks to exploit to extend the Bear’s influence abroad. Given this, and the strong Conservative majority present in parliament, it is not surprising that Russia expects to see Westminster’s political integrity give way to economic pragmatism.
The Kremlin’s greatest hope for Brexit, however, is that it might just spell the end for the EU. Indeed, starting next year, Britain will be able to access global markets with little to no restrictions, whilst enjoying a greater degree of freedom over its fiscal policy. The extent to which the UK will benefit from this has been downplayed by numerous economists; a trade boom nonetheless remains a possibility. Such a development would be exactly the kind of ammunition Euro-skeptics on the mainland could exploit to further convince wavering population as to the economic unfeasibility of the Union. A potential exodus of member states would have the potential of leaving the EU a shadow of its former self.
Such a breakup would yield major economic and geopolitical advantages for Russia, most notably in Eastern Europe. Indeed, most countries in the region already heavily depend on their large neighbor for energy imports. Because of this, membership to Russia’s Eurasian Customs Union through promises of slashed gas tariffs would be difficult to pass up. Through this, Putin would create a network of trade dependency among former Warsaw Pact nations. Such influence would also put Russia in a position to further solidify its security capabilities. A carrot and stick approach based on gas dependency and military intimidation would strangle any move towards NATO that Eastern European nations like Ukraine and Belarus might have been considering. Through all this, he would achieve the kind of buffer zone that has driven Russia’s foreign policy since the days of Peter the Great.
A breakup of the EU would further enhance Russian security by halting the development of the bloc’s Common Defense and Security Policy dead in its tracks. Whilst such a foreign policy tool has so far only been wielded to launch humanitarian interventions, it has the potential of evolving into a comprehensive security arrangement. Thus, much like with NATO, it would be in Russia’s best interest to contain its spread.
Overall, it is undeniable that Brexit poses several advantages for Russia. In the short term, Britain’s actions are giving the Bear the tools it needs to wiggle past the financial constraints placed onto the country in recent years. The more remote possibility of an EU breakup resulting from Brexit meanwhile, would enable Putin to firmly exert his nation’s influence over Eastern Europe, solidifying Russia’s status as regional hegemon. To prevent this, the bloc is going to have to rally together and come up with new strategies to mitigate its most severe internal divisions. Should it fail to do so, the very fate of liberal democracy on the continent will be in jeopardy.
Featured photo by Richard Leeming. Available on Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License