The truth is simpler: Whatever the outcome of the election, Russia has already won. Those in Moscow charged with the task must be following events in the United Kingdom with a deepening sense of satisfaction.
Britain’s Kremlin-angering balancing act has run its course. For decades, the United Kingdom has tried to have it both ways. It has embraced Russian oligarchs, dirty money and luxury real estate purchasers even as it has fitfully tried to strengthen the defenses of its NATO allies and European Union partners against Russia’s revanchist campaign of assassinations, disinformation and dirty wars. But power shifts inside both big parties have pushed Tory and Labour cold warriors to the side.
Both Johnson and the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn are offering more isolationist visions of Britain in the world — albeit in very different ways. While the Conservative Party pushes a vision of a “buccaneering Britain” unchained by Brexit, Labour touts a socialist-inspired reconstruction of the British state in which Corbyn’s foreign policy would weaken London’s commitment to NATO. To put it bluntly: Standing up to Vladimir Putin is nobody’s priority.
The Conservative position is best summed up as “Brexit First.” Johnson’s pledge to push forward with Brexit amounts to securing as many trade deals as possible. Ironically, that will make Brexit Britain more like Germany, which has long prioritized its trade ties with Russia or China above rolling back their influence in Europe. In short, it’s big business, not national security, that comes first. Over the past few years, this new attitude has been reflected in a striking trend: Russia-connected business interests or Russian dual nationals have become increasingly prominent among big Tory donors.
And what else their rise might reveal we will only know for sure when we can finally read the blocked Russia report. “The public has been kept out of information they were entitled to know before an election,” Dominic Grieve, the former lawmaker and head of the committee behind the unpublished report, told me. What it’s in it the public still doesn’t know, but speculation abounds that it exposes Conservative coziness with Russian money as a security threat.
And what if Corbyn, that lifelong critic of Western and especially American foreign policy, manages to defy the polls and land in Downing Street? With President Trump in the White House, that would leave both countries headed by someone who wants the special relationship to fail. We could expect public rows, downgrades to intelligence-sharing and an end to that slight U.K. influence over Trump’s NATO and Russia policy.
While Labour doesn’t advocate withdrawal from NATO, Corbyn has a long history of personal ambivalence and traditional hostility toward the alliance. Merely having the Labour leader in Downing Street would already serve to diminish Britain’s role as a front-line NATO member. Gone would be the days of the Foreign Office stiffening the resolve of the Estonians or the Poles while pushing its allies to buttress Eastern European member states against Russian pressure.
Corbyn’s Britain would instead aspire to be a back-row NATO member state, rather like Spain or Portugal. It would still be a member, but one that sees no great geopolitical role in that membership. It would almost certainly favor conciliation over confrontation with Moscow, and it would probably show little interest in boosting the costly defenses of others. Would a Prime Minister Corbyn forcefully assert NATO’s commitment to collective defense if Russia’s “little green men” special forces appear in the Baltics? Or push aggressively for new rounds of Western sanctions? Not likely — and in that it would increasingly come to resemble the half-dozen or so European countries that prefer similarly limp responses to Russian assertiveness.
In both parties, those with hawkish views on Russia now find themselves marginalized. The Conservative Party elites who worried most about Russian infiltration largely backed the wrong horse by supporting the outmaneuvered and sidelined Tory Remainers. Quite a few are no longer members of Parliament. Many of the pro-NATO forces inside Labour became involved in efforts to oust Corbyn and have found themselves correspondingly routed and despised by the party leadership.
This election, heralding as it does a Britain less focused on keeping Russia out of Europe, not to mention the U.K., could not have come at a better time for Putin. Both the breakup of the E.U. and the weakening of NATO have been long-term dreams of the Russian ruling clique. And Brexit, by removing Britain’s Russia hawks from European security systems and day-to-day Brussels horse-trading, will only empower those who seek to come to some understanding with the Kremlin.
All this is happening at a moment when Europeans, encouraged by French President Emmanuel Macron, are more willing than ever to turn a blind eye to the Kremlin. Ironically, leaving Europe is making Britain more continental — at least when it comes to Russia.