Is Putin really hoping for a Brexit?
Tomorrow will be the big day when the voters of Britain will have their say in whether they want to remain apart of the EU or leave. In the lead up to this referendum the remain camp have been waging a rather hysterical propaganda campaign. According to them Brexit will precipitate a whole raft of calamities for Britain.
Recession is sure to follow. Taxes will be increased and welfare benefits cut. The pound will tank, massive capital flight will occur and unemployment will increase. British companies will lose access to the massive EU market, while imported goods from the EU will increase in cost. International trade deals will become impossible. The borders will be breached by hordes of migrants. These are just some of the ills that a Brexit will unleash–so we are told by the remainers.
We have also been told by Prime Minister David Cameron that al-Baghdadi the Caliph of ISIL would potentially welcome a Brexit and that Britain leaving the EU would be “an abject and self-imposed humiliation” on the country.[1,2] Furthermore proponents of Brexit have been loosely likened to Nazis. In the aftermath of Jo Cox’s assassination by an apparently mentally ill Nazi sympathizer, UK Chancellor George Osborne, while calling for less “inflammatory rhetoric,” then went on to characterize a poster promoted by nationalist UKIP leader Nigel Farage, as having “echoes of literature used in the 1930s”–a subtle but clear allusion to fascist and Nazi literature.
There is also one other Brexit detriment habitually adduced by those in favor of continued British EU membership–that Brexit plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin. Cameron claimed that Putin would welcome a Brexit. UK Secretary of State Philip Hammond argued “None of our allies wants us to leave the EU – not Australia, not New Zealand, not Canada, not the US. In fact, the only country, if the truth is told, that would like us to leave the EU is Russia. That should probably tell us all we need to know.” Even those in favor of Brexit concede that it will be to the benefit of Russia.
At face value such an argument seems quite reasonable. If Britain leaves, the EU could be destabilized, not only due to the direct effect of Britain’s exit, but also because other countries may follow Britain’s lead and themselves vote to leave the EU. An economically and politically weakened EU will be less able to resist the advances of a resurgent and menacing Russia led by the boogeyman Putin. It will also be more difficult for a fractured EU to maintained economic sanctions against Russia. Furthermore it could be speculated that British succession from the EU may also weaken NATO, which is the West’s military bulwark against Russia.
One problem with this seemingly sensible line of reasoning is that it does not take into account what Putin and Russian foreign policy experts themselves think of a Brexit. When we actually take into account the Russian viewpoint, then it becomes apparent that Putin may not be so keen on a Brexit occurring.
On April 5 an article was published online by Russian foreign policy expert Andrey Sushentsov entitled “How will Brexit Affect Russia.” Dr. Sushentsov is the Director the Valdai Club, a prominent Russia think tank with links to the Kremlin, the goal of which is to “promote dialogue between Russian and international intellectual elite.” As such his opinion on Brexit is of great interest and is also likely to be indicative of Putin’s, or at the very least Putin is well aware of it.
In the analysis of Sushentsov: “For Russia, a Brexit signals uncertainty, as it does for the rest of Europe. Referendum results are hard to predict, as is their impact on European politics and economies. Breaching the European status quo may have profound negative effects and pose questions no one is ready to answer. As a historical pessimist, Russia is not looking for the best possible way out. Rather, it is seeking to forestall the worst.”
In Sushentsov’s view there are several possible negative economic repurcussions for Russia of a Brexit. Due to the likely weakening of the EU economy following a Brexit, the Russian economy will also be weakened as the EU is their largest trading partner. The possibility of a trade war between Britain and the remaining EU countries could jeopardize billions of dollars of Russian investments in Europe. As well there is a possible threat to Russia’s foreign reserves, a significant percentage of which is denominated in euros and is held in European banks.
As troublesome as the economic effects of Brexit could be, Sushentsov warns “its political fallout is practically unfathomable.” First of all, while currently the EU is viewed as a puppet of the US, Russia has always hoped that a strong and independent EU would be a helpful counterbalance to US global hegemony. If the EU disintegrates into an uncooperative association of its constituent nation states then this potential bulwark against the US will be gone. As such a weakening of the EU strengthens the US and thereby puts a damper on Russia’s dream of a multipolar world. Furthermore with Britain alone, it is likely it will come into a closer alliance with the US, which may be problematic for Russia.
Another negative consequence of a Brexit is that it will be a set back in the realization of Putin’s dream of a creating an expansive Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a single market stretching from Lisbon in the west to Vladivostok in the east. While most in the West are unaware of the concept of the EAEU, this is clearly something that Putin is very keen on. Recently in a speech given at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum Putin stated, “Friends, the project I have just mentioned – the ‘Greater Eurasia’ project [EAEU] – is, of course, open for Europe, and I am convinced that such cooperation may be mutually beneficial. Despite all of the well-known problems in our relations, the European Union remains Russia’s key trade and economic partner. It is our next-door neighbor and we are not indifferent to what is happening in the lives of our neighbors, European countries and the European economy.”
If the EU disintegrates as a result of a Brexit it will be difficult for Putin to negotiate te creation of the EAEU. Instead of dealing with just the EU as a whole, he will have to individually integrate each European nation separately into his dream project. For all of these reasons Dr. Sushentsov believes a Brexit will not be beneficial to Russia, and at the least it will be a major source of uncertainty.
As for Putin himself, who has been rather mum on his preferred outcome in the upcoming Brexit referendum, I would suspect that he shares the views expressed by Dr. Sushentsov. While Westerners who are legimately leary of Russia and those who are hysterically so, may assume that Putin is some thuggish character bent on the agressive re-establishment of the Soviet Empire and even possibly world domination, a familiarity with Putin and many of Russia’s top thinkers help to dispel such a Western view. What many in the West do not understand is that Putin is guided by the concept of Eurasianism and a multipolar world order.
This world view is based on Russia’s own sense of distinctness from Europe and the West, which borders on a sense of superioty. While Russia is not anti-Western per se it does believe that its ethnic, historical and religious background gives it a national character that is of value to the world, qualities in which the world is in sore need of. As such Russia does not believe it should play a subservient second fiddle to any other world power (i.e. the US), and instead desires a multipolar world order in which multiple world powers cooperate mutually as equals and to the benefit of all. Furthermore Russia sees itself as the nexus for the political and economic conjunction of Europe and Asia, hence its Eurasianism.
As such Putin himself does not want to destroy the US or the EU, but neither does he want to be dominated by them. He wishes them to be equal partners with Russia. So it is likely not in Putin’s interest nor his desire to see the EU disintegrated following the aftermath of a Brexit. If anything he wants the EU to remain, and ideally to be independent of the US. If Putin actually believes that a Brexit would cause the collapse of Europe then it is not unreasonable to assume that he is against a Brexit.
As such when you David Cameron or Philip Hammond admonish that basically a vote for Brexit is a vote for Putin, I hope you don’t fall for such simplest propaganda.