Brexit's Gifts to Putin

How Russia Can Exploit European Divisions

Russian President Vladimir Putin adjusts his tie at a news conference in St. Petersburg, August 2016. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

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,

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