Vladimir Putin is not ready to toast Brexit
If the EU fails, the potential continental contagion would not spare Russia, writes Mary Dejevsky
While international views of Britain’s referendum on EU membership are eagerly solicited and picked over, and Germans, Chinese and Americans may be quizzed by either side for reassurance or nuance, Russia’s support for Brexit is assumed. Vladimir Putin was an early, if unwitting, recruit as bogeyman in the service of those campaigning for the UK to remain in the bloc.
David Cameron, prime minister, bracketed the Russian president with the leader of Isis as people who would be “happy” at a victory for Leave. Michael Fallon, UK defence secretary, told MPs that Brexit would be “payday for Putin”; former foreign secretary Jack Straw branded Boris Johnson, former London mayor and leading advocate of the Leave camp, a “Putin apologist” for criticising EU policy towards Ukraine. Vote out, the Remain argument goes, and you will be advancing Russia’s nefarious purpose.
The logic runs like this: Mr Putin’s ultimate objective is the destabilisation, even the collapse, of the EU. A vote by a big member state to leave would be a significant step in that direction. Therefore Brexit is in Moscow’s interest. Underlying this thesis are two ingrained western beliefs: that Russia’s intentions towards the west are only malign; and that it sees the EU as vulnerable.
How true is this? Russia might well prefer a weaker EU — a grouping which, by the way, it sees as expansionist and strong — but willing the bloc’s disintegration is something of a quite different, and more dangerous, order.
The absolute priority for the Kremlin has long been Russia’s security, and regional stability is seen as a condition for that. Russians of Mr Putin’s vintage have lived through the break-up of the Warsaw Pact, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fear that the Russian Federation could also disintegrate. Viewed from Moscow, the prospect of the EU falling apart threatens Europe-wide contagion from which Russia would not necessarily be spared.
Russia is commonly accused of trying to undermine the EU. But playing the bully towards the Baltic states and cosying up to Greece, while leaving a sour taste, are for the Kremlin no more than diplomatic manoeuvres. It regards such probing as affordable, precisely because it sees no risk that the EU will, as a result, fall apart
In practical terms, Russia appreciates the EU’s solidity and the convenience of dealing with one trading area. Moscow was seriously rattled when the single currency appeared to be at risk — to the point of offering financial support to the European Central Bank. It saw a euro collapse as a danger to Russia, too.
The EU’s success, as perceived in Moscow, is what Mr Putin wanted to replicate with the Eurasian Economic Union. This was to be a voluntary grouping of states on the EU model, building on Soviet-era economic links. It was to be a partner for the EU, not a competitor. But first the EU refused to deal with it, and then came the contest for Ukraine. The project now looks moribund, but that does not mean Russia wants to strike down the EU in revenge.
Which leaves an intriguing question. If Russia is not actually rooting for Brexit, why is neither Mr Putin nor any of his allies saying so? Partly, perhaps, because they are well aware of the savaging they would receive if they seemed to interfere in the UK’s internal affairs. Partly also perhaps Machiavellian: if casting Mr Putin as a bogeyman makes a Remain vote more likely, so be it.
The Kremlin has given no hint of any preference. If you chance upon a Russian diplomat in a quiet corner you might find, if not outright hostility to Brexit, then profound misgivings. Which is why, although the western consensus is that Mr Putin is preparing to toast an Out win, do not be so sure. The champagne may indeed be on ice. Whether it is in anticipation of a UK vote to leave the EU is another matter.
This article was originally posted here