Moscow's ambigious response to the Brexit vote

A demonstration opposite Downing Street in September 2013, to protest Vladimir Putin's signing into law the prohibition of 'promotion' of homosexuality in Russia.
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Demonstration in London to protest Vladimir Putin's signing into law the prohibition of 'promotion' of homosexuality in Russia in 2013

For a long time, the construction of the EU has been incomprehensible and aggravating for Moscow. The EU without Great Britain could be much more pleasant for Russia.

Although the final consequences of the outcome of the British referendum are hardly predictable at this point, the word of a “winner”, namely, Vladimir Putin, spread through the world immediately after the results were announced. The former US-ambassador in Moscow Michael McFaul, called the results a “victory” for Putin's foreign policy strategy, although the Russian president and other Russian officials had only spoken up very carefully before the referendum.

On the one hand, they forbid themselves any external interference, while on the other, they were aware of the fact that any significant comments from Russia would be used by British proponents of the Brexit campaign. Thus, Moscow wanted to give the impression of honorable neutrality.

Even after the referendum, official reactions from Russia sounded relatively restrained „It is the will of the people of Great Britain”, said the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, without pathetic gestures. Furthermore, the expression of people's will was praised in many official comments. The fact that in Russia, even the call for a comparable ground-breaking referendum can lead to jail, stayed unmentioned.

Great Britain behaved like a guard for the new East European member states

President Putin proclaimed: „We have followed it attentively, but influenced it in no way“. But Putin did not want this event to stay entirely uncommented and thus also delivered the explanation for why the majority of British voters opted for “Leave”: „Nobody wants to feed weaker economies and support other countries“, he announced, certifying those British politicians who saw Russian influence in the game, the „low political culture“.

Tense anticipation was hidden behind the restrained satisfaction as a prevailing tone in Russia. The Russian leadership hopes to get quick benefits from the exiting process of the UK. The EU without Great Britain, so the calculation, could be much more pleasant for Russia. After a short political flirt between Prime Minister Tony Blair and then new Russian President Putin in early 2000, English top-politicians have proven themselves as stubborn critics of Kremlin politics, much to Putin’s disappointment.

Great Britain behaved like a guard for the new East European member states, who urged from the Russian sphere of influence – and orientated furthermore strongly towards the USA. The fact that London gave a home to many Russian opponents was aggravating too: the former oligarch Boris Berezovsky scolded Putin from London, the Russian FSB-agent Alexander Litvinenko worked together with the English secret service until he was poisoned with polonium (in his tea). Another former oil-billionaire and prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, often stays in London for longer periods of time.

For Moscow the EU is weak and stuck in crisis-mode

For the Russian rulers, not only the fact that without London’s objection, the European sanctions against Russia might come to shake and investors not only from Great Britain could again stream to emerging economies like Russia, but the whole relationship to Western Europe is being tested. For a long time, the construction of the EU has been incomprehensible and aggravating for Moscow. A union that constantly struggles for compromises doesn’t earn much respect in a country where the strong hand is praised and an independent, even a violent decision is welcomed as a sign of great power. From a Russian perspective, the EU appears as a weakling.

So far, President Putin attempted to disturb the European unity through personally minted bilateral relationships: he preferred a talk with an important state leader to the contact with the amorphous Brussels. Great Britain exiting the EU could impart new momentum to the bilateral relationships past Brussels. Especially, when Russia is able to exert pressure on governments by supporting right-wing populists and Eurosceptics who feel strengthened through the British referendum and sympathize with the Russian leadership.

Domestically, the result of the referendum is a clear piece of evidence for Moscow's theory that the EU is weak and stuck in crisis-mode. For Moscow, any failure of the West looks like a Russian victory. Nonetheless, the reaction after Brexit remains ambiguous: indeed, the authority of Europeans has decreased as a result of reinforced isolationist Kremlin politics and the emphasis of the new vector towards Asia. But the esteem towards the USA has suffered more. If Europe is in crisis, a great part of the Russian population still feels close to it. This keeps the malevolence within the greater public limited.

This article is part of our special Europe's future after "Brexit".