President Putin would shed no tears if Britain left the European Union. He would see Brexit as a sign of our weakness and the weakness of European solidarity at the very moment we need to maintain our collective strength.
Hilary Benn, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, speaking in February 2016.
The received wisdom in the Brexit debate is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is in favour of Britain leaving the EU. Politicians of all shades, from Hilary Benn to Prime Minister David Cameron, have brought up the spectre of Putin to argue the case for voting Remain on June 23. As received wisdoms go, this seems one of the least controversial claims in the Brexit debate. But is it actually true?
If you search Putin’s speeches or official statements since the official announcement of the British referendum in February 2016, you won’t find any mention of it. In fact, Russian officials seem bemused by recurring references to the alleged Russian support for Brexit. Dmitrii Peskov, Putin’s official spokesman, responded to Cameron’s claim that the only world leader that would be happy about Britain leaving the EU is Putin by implying it’s based on an ingrained bias towards Russia:
We are already used to the fact that the Russia factor is one of consistent themes in US election campaigns, but the use of the Russia factor or President Putin’s factor in the Brexit debate is a new element for us.
Peskov also stated the official position of the Russian president – that Russia is interested in “building good, partner-like and mutually beneficial relations with all EU countries, individually and collectively.”
Maria Zakharova, the official Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, was more blunt in her comments:
Russia is blamed for everything. Not just in Britain, but all over the world … Russia has nothing to do with Brexit. We are not involved in this process in any way. We don’t have any interest in it.
Would it be good for Russia?
Much of the persistent belief in the UK that Russia is rooting for a Brexit comes in the context of the ongoing geopolitical standoff with Russia over Ukraine. Russia’s relations with the West hit a new low in 2014 when Crimea was annexed by Russia and Western countries imposed economic sanctions in response. This caused substantial hardship for the Russian economy, just as it was suffering from the impacts of a collapsing oil price.
By removing one of its most fierce critics from the EU, and causing a deepening crisis of the European project, Brexit might play into Russia’s hands by weakening the European resolve to confront Russia over Ukraine. A Brexit could also make EU membership less attractive to those countries in the former Soviet Union which Russia is keen to keep in its orbit.
In addition to geopolitical calculations, there is also an ideological dimension for Russia’s support for forces likely to support a Brexit. Putin’s third presidential term was marked by a so-called “conservative turn” when Russia’s began to reassert itself as a champion of traditional values. This led it to build relations with various conservative forces around the world, particularly in the EU, most of whom are ardent eurosceptics.
Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit leader of the UK Independence Party, publicly expressed his admiration for Putin. Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National and vehement critic of the EU, has links with Russian officials, and her party even received a loan from a Russian bank in 2014. Russia’s opposition to the liberal ideals behind globalisation, such as multiculturalism, would suggest that Putin is a natural ally of the kind of people who tend to support Brexit.
Reasons to be cautious
But there are also strong arguments for the Russian leadership to support Britain remaining in the EU. While certainly wishing for a less antagonistic EU, particularly over its economic sanctions and its opposition to Russia’s dominance in the EU energy sector, the EU remains Russia’s biggest trading partner. Russia certainly does not want it to disintegrate or experience the fallout from any profound economic or existential issues which a Brexit is likely to cause in Europe.
A turmoil in its biggest trading partner would not be good for Russia’s ailing economy, especially as its economic relations with China – a much touted alternative to the EU in the wake of Western sanctions – have so far failed to take off. Besides, the opposition to Russia on Ukraine is led by Germany rather than the UK, and a Brexit won’t change this.
While there might be some circumstantial reasons for Russian leadership to welcome a Brexit over the short term, neither Putin nor other high ranking Russian officials have ever said anything on this subject to suggest they actually support Brexit. In fact, there are many reasons for Putin to wish that dangers to the EU from a possible Brexit never materialise.
Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European politics, University of Kent
The argument in the article is broadly correct. In formal terms, Russia has remained studiously neutral in the Brexit debate, and so claims by Benn and others that Putin and the Russian leadership would cheer the possible disintegration of the European project are based on conjecture.
Of course, Russia would like to see the sanctions regime lifted, since it considers itself the injured party in the Ukraine crisis. After all, it argues, it was not Russia but the Western powers that encouraged the overthrow of Ukraine’s legitimately elected president, and failed to stand by the deal of February 21 2014 which Ukrainians had negotiated for the orderly transfer of power.
Russia has indeed been promiscuous in its support for various populist movements in the EU, but this is in keeping with the classic Putinite strategy of keeping all its options open. There is a conservative cultural critique of the EU, but such a critique is not lacking within the EU itself – both Angela Merkel and David Cameron, for example, have criticised multiculturalism.
The official Russian view on the instability that could be caused by a Brexit is stated by Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s permanent representative to the EU: “The spread of panic in Europe regarding Russia causes my deep regret. Why would that be in Russia’s interests to have the European Union disintegrated? Do we need angry and hostile neighbours? No. We are ready to cooperate, but in such a way that our legitimate interests be taken into account.” What, precisely, are these “legitimate interests” is an important question, and one that the EU and Russia will have to work out together.