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Vladimir Putin may have publicly voiced his concern about the challenges ahead for the United Kingdom and the European Union during their divorce, yet Brexit is a real opportunity for Russia. Indeed, the Russian president will exploit the situation in three ways in the short term.
First, at home, Brexit is a domestic win for Putin, fuelling his broader nationalist agenda and shoring up his domestic support. Since Brexit, the Kremlin PR machine has focused on Putin’s strongman leadership and Russia’s ability to endure hardship in the face of Western economic sanctions and a weakened global oil price. For Putin, Russia is withstanding the challenges while Europe is seemingly falling apart.
Second, abroad, Brexit bolsters Putin’s wider divide-and-conquer foreign policy. The vote was followed by the resignation of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was a candid critic of the Russian leader and warned back in May that Putin would be “happy” with Brexit and a weakened European Union. He was right, and Putin has signalled his readiness for what he calls “constructive dialogue” with Cameron’s replacement Theresa May.
Despite the obvious economic challenges associated with an EU mired in crisis, Russia will no doubt use the opportunity to enhance its bilateral economic ties with European nations, particularly in the energy sphere. Brexit signals the departure of a great power from the EU, which necessarily reduces the net power of the union. The United Kingdom was one of the leading EU voices against Nord Stream-2, a natural gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea, and Brexit will no doubt have serious implications for the EU energy security agenda. Without British opposition to the pipeline, Berlin’s support for it will be met with little resistance in Brussels. Brexit thus removes a significant roadblock to enhanced energy ties between Russia and the EU. In terms of the United States, the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU signals the weakening of Western institutions and brings into question their future, including that of NATO. Further, U.S. presidential candidate Trump’s support for Brexit and general regard for Putin seem to mean that things could continue to go well for Putin in the West.
Third, in terms of sanctions, Brexit could be a significant win for Putin’s Russia. The United Kingdom was one of the strongest advocates within the EU of sanctions against Russia for its continued aggression against Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Even before Brexit, the EU’s unwavering commitment to sanctions had started to fall away. For Brussels, focus will now shift to minimizing the fallout from Brexit and preventing the collapse of the EU project. This means less time for sustaining Russian sanctions, particularly since the topic was already an area of great disagreement within the EU.
Indeed, within the European Union, there has been a push to return to business as usual relations with Putin’s Russia. Earlier this year, sanctions were extended for a further six months—until January 2017. However, some EU nations have sought to protect their potential to repair relations with Russia, and efforts are underway to restore economic and diplomatic relations as soon as possible. For example, back in April, the French parliament passed a resolution to lift EU sanctions on Russia. For France, the sanctions—now in their 29th month—are deemed largely ineffective, with the majority of French parliamentarians believing them to be dangerous to the economy. And the French aren’t alone. With Brexit, Russia rids itself of the most vocal driver of EU sanctions, and the key player able to coax Eastern Europe to toe the sanction line. With Brussels’ time and energy now devoted elsewhere, it is even more likely that the anti-sanction forces within the EU will prevail.
The biggest-ticket gain for Putin is the fallout of Brexit: the potential departure of Austria, Finland, France, and Hungary, driven by the growing power of the far-right in Europe. The overturning of some 70 years of European integration would be welcomed by Putin, as would the disintegration of NATO or other institutions. And within hours of Brexit, other EU nations were signalling their interest in following suit. Indeed, a number of countries have called for similar referendums. Powerful nationalist forces within France are seeking the “right to choose.” Similarly, nationalist forces in The Netherlands are pressuring for a referendum. Italy’s Northern League is also urging a vote.
Time will reveal the true impact of Brexit on the EU project, but at least in the short term, the EU is divided. Putin will seek to exploit the division, dangling trade and security. However, with the rise of increasingly nationalist agendas within the EU, it would appear to take very little to tap into fears of multiculturalism in some pockets of the continent.
The United Kingdom’s split from the EU will take some time yet. This process is the first of its kind and, as such, is bound to leave the global geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape in limbo for some time still. Like much of the world, Putin will be preparing for what comes next. We don’t yet know how well the EU will navigate the challenges ahead, but we can be assured of Putin’s astute ability to exploit the situation to Moscow’s advantage.