On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom held a historic referendum on its future in the European Union (EU). Although the Leave campaign’s victory created an international panic about Britain’s economic future, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Britain’s decision to withdraw from the EU. Putin justified his support for Brexit by arguing that the British people were frustrated with EU-imposed obligations to subsidize poorer economies.
During the referendum campaign, many Remain supporters argued that Brexit would weaken European unity and embolden Russia. A closer examination of Europe’s geopolitical landscape suggests that this statement is overly hyperbolic. Brexit is undoubtedly a major symbolic victory for Putin, but it is unlikely to cause Russia’s geopolitical power to rise markedly relative to Europe’s. It is also improbable that Brexit will cause Britain or the EU to thaw relations with Russia in the short-term.
How Brexit Impacts Russia’s Strategic Position Relative to Europe
In recent years, Kremlin policymakers have stridently criticized European institutions and EU expansion. Therefore, most British policymakers concluded that Russia’s preferred outcome was a UK withdrawal. This conclusion was premised on the assumption that Britain’s departure would further entrench Germany’s hegemony over the EU and foster discord within the supranational organization.
Russian state media coverage of Brexit confirmed this conventional wisdom. Russia Today published an article on June 24, arguing that Austria, France, and Netherlands could potentially follow the UK in exiting the EU. RT’s analysis was based largely on anti-EU comments from right-wing European leaders and from opinion polls demonstrating discontent with the EU in countries typically supportive of European integration.
While some prominent figures like Sberbank head Germain Gref have expressed alarm at the prospect of prolonged instability in Europe, most Russian policymakers echoed RT’s triumphalist attitude and viewed chaos in Europe as an opportunity for Russia to enhance its geopolitical power. Kremlin small business ombudsman Boris Titov argued that the UK’s withdrawal symbolized Britain’s liberation from Europe, and Europe’s liberation from the United States. Titov also boldly predicted that the EU would dissolve into a united Eurasia within a decade.
Kremlin euphoria demonstrates the powerful symbolic significance of Brexit for Putin’s anti-Western foreign policy. But a more even-handed evaluation reveals that this triumphalism will not likely be accompanied by a major rise in Russia’s geopolitical power relative to Europe’s.
The likelihood of a referendum in the Netherlands is rising, as far-right leader Geert Wilders leads the opinion polls ahead of next year’s parliamentary election. However, Euroscepticism in the Netherlands is typically of a softer kind than in the UK. Rejections of the recent Ukraine referendum and the 2005 EU Constitution reveal discontent amongst the Dutch public with Brussels’ supranational authority. But these sentiments have yet to consolidate a critical mass in favor of outright withdrawal.
Dutch-style soft Euro-skepticism is prevalent throughout the EU and is unlikely to lead to the swift disintegration of Europe that many Russian analysts have predicted. Even leaders like Greece’s Alexis Tsirpas and Hungary’s Viktor Orban who have frequently criticized the EU’s violations of national sovereignty firmly supported Britain’s continued EU membership.
If European leaders can effectively articulate what British Prime Minister David Cameron described as the need for a “reformed EU”, it is likely that Europe can stem the tide of withdrawals and ensure that the EU remains an effective bulwark against Russia for years to come.
The likelihood of Europe recovering from Brexit has been noted by Russian policymakers like former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who predicted only a brief period of financial market instability following Brexit. Therefore, Kremlin depictions of a contrast between European “disunity” and Russian “stability” are largely to assist Putin’s regime consolidation efforts and are not a harbinger of a drastic increase in Russia’s geopolitical power relative to Europe.
Why Brexit Will not Cause an EU-Russia Thaw
Since Britain voted to leave the EU, many analysts have speculated that Europe’s desire to uphold economic sanctions against Russia and punish Putin for his aggression in Ukraine would diminish greatly. According to this logic, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will weaken Europe’s linkages with the United States and cause Brussels to embrace Russia as an alternative partner to stem the economic shocks caused by Brexit.
It is conceivable that a prolonged economic recession in Europe and intense discord over German hegemony in the EU could cause Brussels to improve its relations with Russia. But a closer examination of the foreign policies of individual countries within the EU makes sanctions relief unlikely in the short-term.
Germany has historically been more conciliatory towards Russia than many European countries. But deep internal divisions make it unlikely to advocate an end to Russia’s economic isolation from the West. Germany maintains a long history of close business relations with Russia and Social Democrats like Foreign Minister Franz Walter Steinmeier favor a gradual phasing out of sanctions. Yet German Chancellor Angela Merkel has remained resolute in her position that sanctions can only be removed if Russia complies fully with the Minsk peace agreement to end the Ukraine conflict.
While Hungary, Greece and Italy (to a lesser extent) remain skeptical about the need for continued sanctions against Russia, envoys from all 28 EU member states agreed to a six-month extension of sanctions from June 21. This demonstrates a European consensus on the need to isolate Russia that will remain intact even if the EU is bereft of Britain’s hawkish influence.
Russian policymakers have also expressed optimism that the UK will be more accommodating towards Putin. Likely Conservative Party leadership candidate and former London mayor Boris Johnson has been widely criticized in Britain for his relatively conciliatory attitude towards Russia. In May, Johnson claimed that the EU had contributed to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and also called for deeper UK-Russia cooperation in Syria.
Johnson responded to his critics by claiming that he was merely pointing out that the EU’s response to the Ukraine crisis was “far from ideal.” But Remain supporters have insinuated that his election would shift British foreign policy in a more pro-Russian direction.
Despite conciliatory rhetoric from UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Johnson’s willingness to cooperate with Putin, it is a major leap to assume that Anglo-Russian relations will become significantly more cordial.
David Cameron’s tenure began with a mini-reset of British foreign policy towards Russia in 2010, which included a de-emphasis on the Litvinenko affair and an aggressive push for deepened London-Moscow commercial linkages. This spirit of cooperation disintegrated over the course of Cameron’s tenure. In 2014, Cameron led European efforts to impose sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea and the shoot-down of MH17.
Taking a historical perspective, Britain has arguably been more consistently antagonistic towards Putin’s Russia than any other Western country. In 2003, Britain gave political asylum to Boris Berezovsky and Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev, despite immense pressure from Putin to extradite them to Russia. Given the current makeup of the British Parliament, a fundamental break in that foreign policy trajectory appears unlikely, even if Johnson becomes Prime Minister and UKIP’s public support grows.
Britain’s exit from the EU is a grave blow to European unity and a major symbolic victory for Putin’s anti-Western foreign policy. But the impact of the British public’s decision on EU security policy towards Russia, UK-Russia relations and Russia’s power projection capacity will be limited. Notwithstanding the referendum’s outcome, diplomatic re-engagement between Europe and Russia appears unlikely for the foreseeable future.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, Diplomat Magazine and Kyiv Post amongst other publications. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.