Despite speculations that the exit of the UK from the EU will benefit Russia, it is hardly likely to be a serious game changer for relations between Moscow and Brussels.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, center left, speaks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, center right, during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, June 28, 2016. Photo: AP

The article is kindly provided by the Valdai Discussion Club.

Given the state of Russian relations with the EU, it would not be a surprise if Moscow celebrated the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. The Brexit vote seemingly eliminates two problems that made the EU an uncomfortable partner for Russia — its relative strength and its relative Atlanticism. From a Russian standpoint, Brexit has already shattered the credibility of the EU, and without the UK as a bridge between Europe and the U.S., in theory, the European Union could be less concerned about American interests and offer Moscow more room to negotiate.

Taking the emotional element out of the equation, however, it is far from certain that removing the UK from the EU would change the organizations policies vis-à-vis Moscow.

No Brexit effect on the security agenda

On the issue of Western interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya and Syria, for example, which, in Moscow’s view, played a major role in the Western-Russian estrangement of the last decade and a half, Britain’s involvement in the discussions was not significant enough to change the decision.

Should Kosovo happen today, there would probably be a consensus among the UK and EU’s major powers to undertake an intervention similar to the one in 1999, irrespective of whether the UK is in the EU or not. Virtually all the EU member states still believe firmly the 1999 intervention was the right thing to do.

In terms of the 2011 intervention in Libya, it is again unclear whether the UK’s presence mattered in the decision-making process. At the time, France was the driving force behind the intervention, followed by the UK. Germany was clearly more than skeptical of the idea. Should the UK be removed from the equation, the tensions between France and Germany would still exist.

Read Russia Direct's debates: "Brexit: Implications for Russia, Europe and the world"

Much the same argument can be made for Syria. In the summer of 2013, there was a serious push to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war with a military intervention. At the time, France was ready to strike, but a hesitating UK government asked the parliament to decide, and the U.S. opted not to launch an intervention after a Russian-brokered deal on the removal of chemical weapons. Once again, in that crisis, the status of the UK in the EU played virtually no role in how the countries pursued their policies on Syria.

Another major security irritant in Western-Russia relations is the anti-ballistic missile system and its elements being deployed in Central Europe, but here clearly the UK does not play a major role in the decision to deploy or not.

These examples demonstrate that recent major security irritants in Western-Russian relations have not always been driven by the UK’s role in shaping the EU position. Naturally, this in part because the EU is not primarily a security alliance and therefore did not play a key role in many of the major security crises above. However, it is clear that the decision of the UK to leave the EU is likely to have a rather marginal impact on the issues of war and peace where major European players have high stakes.

Where Brexit might have an impact

What about the mundane issues that are more central to the EU mandate, and where the UK’s departure might have an impact on relations with Russia?

One place where the UK’s influence was felt is in the adoption of the so-called 3rd energy package in 2009, which served to constrain Russian energy giant Gazprom’s sales to EU states. But the picture is less clear on other key Russian foreign policy priorities in Europe – past or present.

Take the issue of visa-free travel between the EU and Russia. The UK is not part of Schengen and common EU visa policy, and has played no role in discussions on visa liberalization with Russia. The UK leaving the EU will not change the state of the policy debate on the subject. Russia and the EU do not have a visa-free regime for reasons completely unrelated to the UK.

Trade liberalization is another example. The idea of a common economic space from “Lisbon to Vladivostok,” or direct dialogue between the EU and the Eurasian Union, are not likely to become economic mega projects, because first and foremost, Russia is not interested in substantial trade liberalization with the rest of the EU.

Also read: "Post-Brexit: What kind of Europe does Russia need?"

And if recent trade talks between Russia and the European states are any guide, then it is useful to remember that the last EU member state to agree to Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) — and was perhaps the toughest negotiator — was Germany (rivaled only by Georgia, a non-EU state). These negotiations were ongoing even after London and the European Commission were in principle ready to give Russia a green light.

The issue of potential weakening of the sanctions regime without the UK is also unlikely. The more fragile the EU is due to internal tensions, the less willing the states are to open new fronts of divisions — such as over dropping sanctions on Russia. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban once explained why he would not veto the sanctions policy, by saying he has “far bigger issues” to solve with other EU capitals besides Russia.

And when it comes to EU enlargement, certainly the UK has been a key proponent of enlargement to Central Europe in the last two decades, but so was Germany. In any case, now the time of bold enlargements to the East has passed, with or without the UK inside the EU. 

Certainly, there are some dossiers in which Brexit will make achieving Russian foreign policy goals in Europe easier, but these are unlikely to be on major security issues.

Brexit might provide Russia some psychological comfort stemming from the humiliation of a complicated foreign policy partner, and the UK leaving the EU will certainly affect negatively the organization in many ways. But if the history of the biggest security “misunderstandings” between Russia and the rest of Europe is any guide, chances are that Brexit might not make the EU a much more comfortable partner on key foreign and security policy matters. 

The article is kindly provided by the Valdai Discussion Club.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.