Before last week’s “Brexit” vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that Vladimir Putin (and the Islamic State) “might be happy” if the United Kingdom left the European Union. Putin responded that Russia had no interest in the U.K.’s internal affairs. But he added that Britons clearly were dissatisfied with the government’s military policy, which was encouraging migration – apparently referring to the U.K.’s airstrikes and other efforts in Syria.
Nevertheless, Russia’s political establishment clearly relished the Brexit victory. Among them, Russia’s small business ombudsman Boris Titov exclaimed on Facebook, “it seems it has happened: UK out!!!” He continued that the vote meant “the independence of Europe from the USA.”
But was it really a triumph for the Kremlin? Does it help Putin’s regime?
Russia sees the E.U. as a political threat
The E.U. has been a thorn in Russia’s side — particularly since by reaching out to former Soviet nations, it appeared to challenge Russia’s role as the leading regional power. In 2013, Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests were perceived by the Kremlin as the direct result of U.S. meddling. After Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, it perceived the resulting U.S. and European sanctions as logical extensions of the West’s anti-Russian policies.
And so, over the past couple of years, the Kremlin has been making the case diplomatically and in the media that Europe is broken without Russia, and that the E.U. works against its members’ interests. Russian politicians and news outlets seized upon the Brexit vote as proof of that narrative that E.U. policies are wrong-headed, punitive and ultimately driven by U.S. interests. Immediately after the Brexit referendum results were released, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted: “Losers: EU, UK, US, those that believe in a strong, united, democratic Europe. Winners: Putin.”
Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Duma’s Committee for International Affairs, retorted that the West should think about why British voters chose to leave the E.U. after President Obama urged them to remain.
Russia has spent the past few years cultivating support among populist parties in Europe. As those parties try to capitalize on the Brexit vote, Russia can now claim to have its finger on Europe’s pulse.
And yet Russia relies on the E.U. as a trading partner
Russia really isn’t interested in breaking up the European economic bloc. The E.U. is Russia’s single largest trading partner and market for its energy. Russia’s embargo on European agricultural imports (imposed in response to Western sanctions) wasn’t intended to boost domestic industry; rather, it was trying to remind the E.U. that it needs the Russian market.
Undoubtedly Russia’s short-term hope is that Brexit will undermine the already shaky European unity on sanctions against Russia, which the E.U. only recently extended for another six months. The U.K. has backed those sanctions strongly, but Brexit opens a significant wedge for Russian diplomacy. As Moscow’s Mayor Sergei Sobyanin tweeted, “Without the U.K., there will be nobody in the E.U. to defend sanctions against Russia so zealously.”
Ordinary Russians are less interested
In contrast to “official” Russia, the average Russian is largely ambivalent about or uninterested in Brexit. Foreign policy is a distant priority, far behind the economy, standards of living, unemployment, health care, inflation, social policy, education and pensions. For most Russians, life under sanctions has become the new normal. Many Russians assume that restrictions on European imports are part of the West’s sanctions and don’t realize that, say, cheese is less available because of the Kremlin’s counter-sanctions. Others talk about economic crisis as a global concern rather than as a political consequence of the state’s foreign policies.
In interviews and focus groups conducted in two Russian provinces over the past three years, I found Russians have a clear tendency to compare themselves to the West to stress how normal and unexceptional Russian history and politics are. They may interpret Brexit as confirmation that Russia’s foreign policy is headed in the right direction, since the U.K. is now – like the Kremlin — also rejecting the European project. They might conclude similarly that E.U. sanctions do not represent its members’ interests.
According to Aleksei Gilev, director of the Center for Comparative Historical and Political Studies, Russia’s media presents Europe as chaotic, falling apart and rife with problems. For ordinary Russians, a general social approval for “showing up” or disrupting someone’s plans dovetails with media narratives about Europe.
Few Russians pay much attention to foreign policy
As crisis conditions become normal, diplomatic victories do not automatically translate into domestic support for Putin’s government. In fact, different groups in Russian society respond in different ways.
State employees (or biudzhetniki) tend to believe in foreign policy directions based on personalities like Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov or Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu — and not by how well those policies succeed.
Pensioners tend to blame the West for interfering with Russia’s foreign policy, but that’s separate from how they blame Russia’s government for failing to deliver benefits.
Students evaluate foreign policy according to constitutional and international law and by idealistic standards, but they hold the government to similar standards in domestic politics.
Entrepreneurs and small- to medium-business owners do believe that foreign policy affects domestic policy – after all, it influences their markets, competition, and supplies – but they pay little attention to politics.
In other words, Russia’s politicians and media may welcome Brexit – most significantly, the expectation that Western sanctions will be relaxed or eliminated. Indirectly, it may facilitate the Kremlin’s networking with populist parties in Europe.
But in domestic politics, it is unlikely to pay political dividends in advance of upcoming parliamentary elections. Russians have become accustomed to life under sanctions. The Kremlin has successfully gotten its citizens to ignore how Russia’s foreign policy affects economics at home. But as a result, it won’t be able to capitalize on an actual crisis in Europe.
J. Paul Goode is senior lecturer in Russian politics at the University of Bath, U.K.