Argument

The Great Brexit Distraction

Attempts to blame Russia for the EU’s mess will only get in the way of addressing the union’s real problems.

A pro-European Union demonstrator holds a placard bearing an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin in central London on June 11, 2018. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty)
A pro-European Union demonstrator holds a placard bearing an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin in central London on June 11, 2018. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty)

It is fashionable to blame Russia for all that is going wrong in the world—even Brexit. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, has taken to the lecture circuit to warn that democracy is “under siege” by Russia under President Vladimir Putin. “I don’t understand why the press, the political establishment and the public are so reluctant to call out what the Russians have been doing,” she said last fall at the University of Oxford. “What they did in Brexit, what they did in the United States.”

Assigning blame to Russia may seem easy—particularly given the country’s track record of meddling in other nations’ domestic politics—but it is ultimately short-sighted. In fact, Moscow could lose as much as it could gain through Britain’s departure from the European Union. Further, although Brexit may be the big issue of day, realistically, it is merely a distraction from a larger change underway within the international system. And the West is missing it.

In 2016, the United Kingdom let its people decide whether to remain in or leave the EU. Brexit won the day, and panic set in among policymakers who had no real plan for how their country’s departure would actually unfold. They quickly scrambled to assign blame elsewhere.

Russia, fresh from its adventures in the Crimean peninsula, attracted a fair share of the condemnation: Moscow, advocates of the losing Remain campaign have argued, had financially backed the Leave campaign. Arron Banks, an alleged intermediary between Russian financers and the Leave.EU campaign, has been the most recent to attract attention for possibly doing Moscow’s dirty work.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has further leveled charges at Moscow of “weaponizing the media.” And academics have previously floated claims that Russia’s Internet Research Agency used social media in an orchestrated disinformation campaign, although Twitter has noted that about only 1 percent of bot accounts posting about Brexit were actually registered in Russia.

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, also pointed the finger at Russia. He’s frequently said that Putin is the sole world leader who would be happy with a Brexit.

But are Russia’s fingerprints all over the crime scene? The answer is complicated. As Fiona Hill, a leading Russia expert and advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump, pointed out a week after the referendum in 2016, Putin “could see a lot of upsides and downsides” to Brexit. Certainly, Russia does have a strategic interest in Brexit taking place. Divorcing the largest military power from the union and spreading chaos in the process is indeed a sound strategy for Moscow.

What’s more, the United Kingdom is by far the most vocal opponent of Russia within the EU. London, as Washington’s firmest ally, has been the one driving EU support for Russian sanctions. After Brexit, Germany and France—two powers with which Putin has focused on strengthening ties—will become the EU’s main stewards. With a warmer EU climate toward Moscow, sanctions might be scrapped.

A last bit of good news for Putin: Russia can use Brexit to illustrate the failure of the EU project. Abroad, he can present it as a case study to try to persuade remaining members to exit. At home, it is a good tool for countering any domestic desire to make Russia’s political model more Western.

But Brexit is not necessarily all positive for Russia. The uncertainty surrounding it has added to the stagnation of global oil prices. Languishing oil prices only add to Moscow’s economic woes. Further, Putin is likely to feel the heat from his oligarch cronies who largely park their wealth in London property. Uncertainty in that market surely makes them nervous.

Moscow is no doubt tormented by the potential for Brussels to forge ahead with plans for an EU Army if Brexit eventuates. One may rightly expect that any EU Army’s first point of order would be an effort to bolster Ukrainian sovereignty.

This leads to the truth that, despite Russia’s regional prowess and assertive foreign policies, Moscow is a weak power. Russia is internally fragile, with an all but stagnant economy and a leader whose popularity is underwritten (albeit with declining success) by increasingly untenable military campaigns abroad. Dividing and conquering the EU only makes sense for Moscow if there are bilateral relationships to salvage to ultimately bolster Russia’s economy.

And on that score, the best outcome for Russia is one in which Brexit occurs and Russia is able to fortify its bilateral relationships with France and Germany. If, by contrast, the remaining EU countries band together even more tightly after Brexit, Russia would have a lot to worry about.

Although there are credible reasons to think Russia influenced the referendum, it is worth asking why Moscow would want to incite chaos that indeed also impacts itself.

But it doesn’t really matter whether Russia swayed public opinion on Brexit. The basis for individual voters’ anti-EU feeling was preexisting. This inward turn stems from the values and beliefs of the British people, and continuing to point the finger at Russia is only a distraction from addressing those concerns.

Indeed, blaming Russia for what Brexit represents—a deterioration of Western democracy, a process of deglobalization, and the reemergence of far-right politics—obscures real challenges to the international system. Russian propaganda cannot be influential unless the beliefs, values, and sentiments that it seeks to incite exist. And that is where policymakers should focus. Western leaders need to invest in cybereducation so that coming generations are better equipped to sift fake news and disinformation out of their own political narratives. Policymakers also need to develop a cohesive approach to hybrid warfare of the kind disinformation ops represent—agreeing on a universal definition is a start.

Russia might see windfalls from Brexit—or it may equally suffer consequences. Either way, the West should be focused on its own fate. After all, Moscow is busy gaming out how Brexit will shape the European landscape and the international structure while working to cement Russia’s place within it. Europe should be doing so too.

Elizabeth Buchanan is a research fellow at the Australian National University (ANU) Centre for European Studies and deputy course convener with the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Twitter: @BuchananLiz

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