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Commentary | 29 March 2016

Is Brexit really in Russia’s interest?

Based solely on the observations of journalists, experts and policy makers from around the world it can almost be taken for granted that Russia wants the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. The logic being that since London takes a hawkish view of Russia, eagerly defending sanctions against the Russian government and prominently supporting anti-Russian views in Brussels, it would be easier for Moscow to deal with the EU if Britain were no longer a member. Another notable argument is that a Brexit would make the whole EU economically and geopolitically weaker, precisely what many Russian policy makers would supposedly like to see. With the ever closer union going to pieces, Moscow would have more flexibility in its bilateral relations with individual Member States and get new opportunities to renegotiate on an array of issues important to the Kremlin, from Ukraine to energy policy.

However, it is hard to say whether this genuinely reflects the reality of thinking in the Kremlin or at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the contrary, Russian officials tend to support the integrity of the EU and distance themselves from speculations on Brexit. Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov has stated that “it has never been the aim of Russian foreign policy to destabilise the EU”, while Vladimir Putin’s official spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Brexit is not a matter of discussion between Moscow and Brussels and “it is up to the EU to solve this problem”. Russia’s public statements on Brexit are understandable. But even without taking any official position on Brexit, Russia’s perceived intentions, as described above, make great campaign tools. Many British politicians, from across the political spectrum, have linked Russia’s growing and dangerous influence to the Brexit debate. Just like in the American Presidential race, Russia and in particular President Putin are becoming useful malicious images for influencing public opinion and could help to consolidate citizens around the idea of remaining in the EU.

Russia will likely continue to be used as a boogeyman in campaign rhetoric, but it is worth considering whether Brexit really is in Russia’s national interests. At first glance, considering that Russia-UK relations have often been strained since the beginning of the 21st century, the consequences of the removal of Britain’s influence within the EU could give more geostrategic freedom for Russia and help it rebuild closer contacts with the remaining poles of power in Berlin and Paris, which tend to take a more realpolitik approach towards Moscow. There is also the argument that Britain’s exit would weaken Eastern European Member States (in particular Poland and the Baltic states) which often gain support from London, downgrading anti-Russian sentiments in Brussels. Finally, Brexit would be met positively by a large fraction of the Russian political class who consider Britain as a faithful adherent of NATO strengthening and expansion.

All these hugely popular arguments derive from the geopolitical viewpoint, which is gaining more and more ground within policy-making communities. It has already become commonplace in Russia to discuss its development strategy through the lens of geostrategic interests. But building chessboard scenarios doesn’t deal with the fact that the Russian economy is in a poor condition, or with the fact that the country obviously needs to play a bigger role in the global market and continue reforms to avoid more severe crises in the future – ideally by shifting away from energy export dependence. Therefore, it is more important for Russia to search for its place in the changing global environment and understand what possibilities are there to diversify its economy and trade, and view the prospects of Brexit through these lenses. Which is why another question should be addressed (however naïve it may sound today) – is it more important to continue building a positive-sum, integrated pro-market community in Europe or keep arguing about spheres of influence?

It is remarkable that both Russia and the UK – both still bearing memories of mighty imperial pasts – seem to be lost between different choices of long-term development. Both of them wish to play a more independent role on a world stage, but looking at their share of world total GDP based on PPP and nominal GDP (3.30% and 2.41% for Russia, 3.36% and 3.82% for the UK respectively) it becomes evident that it’s going to be difficult to support these ambitious claims of exclusiveness, considering the speed of globalization and level of competition in the contemporary world order. If the UK votes against its membership of the EU, it will have a long standing effect not only for its own, but for the European market, because despite political misunderstandings with Brussels, British business has been among the most consistent advocates of the European free trade system. It is due to British influence that reforms were implemented throughout the last four decades which made the European market better in terms of regulation, budgeting, investment climate etc. By this token, building close relations between Russian and British business communities is one of the often underestimated bilateral achievements of the last quarter century, because they served as a bridge for Russian companies not only to the British, but single European and hence the global market. At the same time, Europe can use the UK’s strong business ties with Russian entrepreneurs and innovative sector, especially if sanctions are loosened and the Russian market opens its doors again. In the event of a Brexit, working out and concluding new trade deals, including one with Russia, will take years of negotiations and it is not clear if British and Russian businesses will benefit in the end. Even if London manages to conclude a new deal on its role in the European Economic Area, it will cut itself off from many other mechanisms of integration. Special relations with the EU that naturally evolved and worked well for Switzerland and Norway may not be that simple for the UK, which has a totally different system of governance and can lead to the rise of regional separatism that may in turn echo in other EU Member States.

It is apparent that European and Euro-Atlantic integration is more politicised and driven by populism today than ever before. All sides should take their share of responsibility for this. The key problem is that populism will not stop global integration, but it can further reduce Europe’s potential and competitiveness by adding more mistrust and greater risk of military escalation. Instead of discussing the opportunities of a Greater Europe and seriously reacting to such global and far-reaching initiatives as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, Russia and the UK seem to be sliding into neo-protectionist measures, thus limiting the ability of their markets for long-term development and putting at risk regional predictability. Per contra, Euroscepticism in the UK and other countries did not come from nowhere, it is rather a symptom of a developmental malaise. The EU has to become more flexible and be able to liberalise itself further as a response to a changing environment. It must also find a new modus vivendi with its Eastern neighbours, including Russia. It should once again become an attractive model of integration, not an object of the perpetual criticism.

If Russia and the European Union wish to build long term relations further and get back to vital discussions on the importance of common spaces and an integrated market, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would hardly facilitate this. If a zero-sum scenario with more closed borders and more mistrust on the continent prevails, which is already in the air today, then Brexit can be just one link in the chain of unpredictable events which can lead to a further impasse in Russia – West relations.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.