Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Britain’s impending exit from the EU may not have any long-term positive implications for Russia.


A woman on a bicycle leaves a polling station near to the Royal Chelsea Hospital, London. Britons decided their country should leave the European Union on June 23, 2016. Photo: AP

The key question that everyone is asking themselves today is whether any side will be better off with Britain having voted to exit the EU. Britain will soon be starting a painful “divorce” from continental Europe, with uncertain implications.

A fairly popular answer voiced by British leader David Cameron and former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, among others, is that the only ones to gain will be Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. His bid on a split within Europe and a revival of the demons of European nationalism has been a winning one, and from now on, the Europeans will have even less potency to resist Russia and maintain the sanctions policy.

Hardly anyone in the West trusts Putin when he asserts that a strong Europe is a better option for Russia. Yet Putin is quite sincere in that matter. However, his idea of a “strong Europe” differs radically from the accepted notion.

In fact, the European leaders do not impress the Russian president as strong, independent statesmen. From Putin’s perspective, it is impossible to find common ground with them, because they act with an eye to Brussels and Washington, when faced with a challenge.

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If, on the other hand, the heads of France, Italy, Poland, Greece and other countries that Russia is dealing with had true sovereignty, then, in Putin’s belief, it would be easier to come to an understanding with them, settle all controversial problems, and establish mutually beneficial relations.

Putin’s ideal of a Europe consisting of completely sovereign states with independent leaders at the head has an understandable origin from a psychological point of view. At the beginning of the 21st century, Putin, who was then just a young, inexperienced statesman, found a favorable reception from the ring of world leaders and established friendly relations with America's George W. Bush, France's Jacques Chirac, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Germany's Gerhard Schröder. He never accused them of weakness or lack of independence.

However, the leaders of these democratic nations have since been replaced while Putin has remained as the leader of Russia. By the middle of the second decade of the century, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains the only one who matches – with serious reservations – Putin’s ideal of the leader of a sovereign state. The rest of them Putin tends to look down on, which does not help establish friendship and mutual understanding.

The British referendum and the prospect of a growing isolation of the European states hardly heralds the beginning of an epoch of strong leaders. More likely is the opposite: for years, if not decades, to come Britain and other countries are doomed to an exhausting struggle among various political groups, backing or opposing integration. In such a Europe, Putin will most certainly not be able to find any independent political leaders. 

Moreover, it is clearly not Russia that the weak European leaders will be turning to for support. With Britain lost, continental Europe will not be less pro-American, as some Russian politicians reckon, for the reason that under such conditions, Washington will become the main external guarantor of the idea of a united Europe while keeping special relations with London.

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As for the Eurosceptics, their love for Russia and Putin will only last until they come to power. If that happens, Russia for the “independent, sovereign leaders of Europe” will automatically turn into a political rival that is only fit to be used temporarily, as a bogeyman for the opponents.

If history provides any lessons for us to learn, it is that a Europe split into national states inevitably plunges into a void of wars and conflicts. Such a scenario hardly has any gains in store for Russia.

In Russia, the opinion is popular that without Great Britain, the EU will not be able to maintain for long the policy of sanctions on Russia, and for that reason, the results of the British referendum must be welcomed. This may be true, but it is possible that, contrary to the expectations, the EU will become more consolidated, and the U.S. influence on European politics may grow instead.

Most importantly, by putting the repeal of the sanctions at the center of its foreign policy and assessing all the developments in the world in terms of whether they will favor or hinder the repeal of the sanctions, Russia drives itself into a strategic impasse.

It may seem that crises and catastrophes are good for Russia, as thanks to them, the sanctions may be forgotten and dwindle quietly. But is it indifferent to Russia what kind of world it will face in the “post-sanctions” era? Will it suit Russia if that world is just a heap of smoking ruins? One should believe that it would not.

The British referendum on the exit from the EU can be compared in many ways to another sensational event of recent years, the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. Both events were mainly driven by the idea of resistance to external influence: Russia feared the appearance of NATO bases in Sevastopol while the British voters opposed the omnipotence of the Brussels bureaucrats.

Seriously challenged by both events, the established system of international relations has been put into motion. Both Russia and Britain have shown, each in its own way, that it is impossible for them to maintain the status quo, which they regard as inconsistent with their national interests.

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Even though the British referendum can be considered as a triumph of democracy and rule of law while the “polite people” appeared in Crimea as a result of a carefully planned covert operation that raises a lot of legal questions, it is hard to deny that in both cases, it was a manifestation of revanchism, or a conservative retracement after decades of progressive development in the field of international relations and improvement of the international institutions.

Only time will tell whether anyone will be better off as a result of this inevitable, and even somewhat necessary, conservative wave, but it is clear already that a quick restoration of the dynamic, progressive phase in the international relations is not to be expected.

In today’s situation, the most important thing is to prevent a complete rollback by retaining at least some basic achievements of the progressive epoch. The responsibility for this lies not on the objective historical cycles, but on politicians – those who Putin calls “strong leaders” — himself included.

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