Officially, Russia was neutral on the question of Brexit. However, it’s easy to see how many members of the Russian political elite could be celebrating Britain’s unprecedented move.

EU and British flags are adjusted before the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 28, 2016. Photo: Reuters

The Brexit referendum has resulted with almost 52 percent of British voters deciding they wanted to leave the EU. This people’s verdict is bound to have a huge impact on the United Kingdom itself, and on the European Union as well. So how should Russian politicians and experts view the just-concluded referendum?

Officially, Moscow, in contrast to the two other major powers – the United States and China, whose top leaders clearly and openly supported British Prime Minister David Cameron’s position of keeping the United Kingdom in the EU – chose a neutral position on the referendum.

Shortly before the referendum, the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, emphasized this neutral viewpoint when she said, “We are not participants in this process. We have no interest in this area.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, responding to direct “allegations” of British ministers that a successful Brexit would be a great “gift for the Kremlin,” responded in his characteristic manner during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum: “In general, it seems to me, it is not a good thing to drag Russia into a problem, especially one in which we have no interest. Intelligent people do not do such things."

On June 24, responding to questions from journalists about Brexit, Putin said that the voting results showed “self-confidence and a superficial attitude of voters to the crucial issues facing their own country.” The head of Russia, in general, logically stressed that this outcome of the referendum has demonstrated the reluctance of a large number of Britons to keep feeding the “weak economies” of Europe, as well as their opposition to the EU’s migration policies.

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The anti-British orientation of the Russian political elite

Be this as it may, many analysts in Russia still believe that, at least indirectly, official Moscow was still on the side of the British political forces advocating a break with the EU. In particular, as Elena Ananieva noted in a recent article written for Russia Direct, “Russia might benefit from Brexit, because in the EU, Britain holds the strongest anti-Russian positions, along with Poland and the Baltic countries.”

It is difficult to name another country in Western Europe today, with which the Russian Federation has such discordant political relations as with the United Kingdom. After the events in Ukraine in 2014, the Strategic Energy Dialogue between Moscow and London stopped instantly and the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Investment no longer meets. Gone, too, are the regular consultations between the foreign ministries of the two countries.

Moreover, many public and political figures in Russia hold quite a critical attitude to the foreign policy pursued by Great Britain and London, regardless of their ideological positions or party affiliation. We can recall, for example, the recent incident involving Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, when he had a tough response to the criticism of official London as to the activities of the Russian Air Force in Syria.

Naturally, Russia’s party in power, United Russia, and its decision-makers use every occasion, with and without justification, to “offend” the British. For example, Alexey Pushkov, head of the State Duma Foreign Policy Committee, several times in his analytical television program “Postskriptum,” noted that London currently has no genuine independence from the U.S. and NATO.

Leaders of the main opposition parties in Russia, preferring not to make any specific comments on Brexit, also expressed their cool feelings in relation to the United Kingdom.

Thus, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, noted that ever since the Middle Ages, England was the historical enemy of the Russian state and, therefore, has always been interested in the weakening and disintegration of Russia.

For Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, it is obvious that the “the United States is behind the back of Great Britain” and that “England has always sailed in the wake of American foreign policy.” In general, we can say that, de facto, the Russian political establishment today is united in their anti-British sentiment.    

Russia’s expert community weighs the pros and cons of Brexit

Many Russian journalists and political scientists before the June 23 referendum calmly tried to understand if Moscow would actually benefit from the UK’s exit from the EU.

In particular, journalist Anton Tamarovich showed the hypothetical (and also subjective) advantages of such an exit for Russia. In an article written for Russia Direct (“Would Brexit help or hurt Russia?”), he correctly pointed out that it is necessary to bear in mind the following obvious challenges that go along with Brexit: “Britain’s exit might lead to direct confrontation with Russia; Britain’s exit would imply an even greater role for Germany; Britain’s exit could provoke an aggravation of old regional conflicts.”

These factors could come into focus soon. Remember: Brexit was not the result of anti-Atlanticist feelings, but rather, of pro-Atlanticist sentiments. It should also be remembered that British Conservatives, who in any case will remain in power until the year 2020, lead the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, which also includes the ruling right-wing political parties of countries that are opposed to Russia, such as Poland and Turkey.

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Many responsible Russian economists, objectively assessing the likely short-term impact of a possible Brexit, wrote that it would cause enormous political, financial and economic turmoil in Europe, which in principle, would not necessarily be to the benefit of Russia. For example, the deputy director of the Institute of Europe, emphasized: “One of the few ‘pros’ of an exit, will be a kind of self-gratification of discontented British subjects, who want to feel like true islanders.”

At the same time, many political analysts, writing about the British referendum, noted that given the “Cold War” environment, which today dominates in Russian-British relations, causes many Russian leaders to objectively, albeit indirectly, wish that Brexit would succeed. 

For example, journalist and political analyst Konstantin Eggert noted, “Britain’s departure will make Paris and Berlin more dominant in the EU. It will be easier for Russia to negotiate with these two.

It’s likely that senior Russian officials – at least on the purely emotional level – are celebrating today, in the sense that David Cameron, a vocal opponent of Russia, has suffered a great political loss, and soon will be leaving his post as Prime Minister of Britain. His future successor, if he is a member of the “anti-European wing” of the Conservative Party, will most likely have a better attitude towards Russia. Also, in the sense that the Eurocrats, so keen on imposing sanctions against Russia, “have received a bloody nose,” and that U.S. President Barack Obama, who openly campaigned against Brexit, was made to look foolish.

But it is not clear what Moscow will do with this emotional triumph. Indeed, Russia did not participate in this process, and will have to figure it out, just like the rest of the world.