Brexit would bolster Russia’s geopolitical narratives


On balance, a British withdrawal from the EU would bolster Russia’s preferred geopolitical narratives and make it more difficult for the West to counter Russian power plays, argues James Nixey, Head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank.

“Few people on either side of the referendum debate, and in Europe more widely, have realized that Russia is actively engaged in harming the West with a variety of measures from cyber attacks to financial corrosion to propaganda dissemination – all types of coercion in their own way,” he writes:

The necessary and inevitable operational conclusion has most certainly not yet been reached (because it is unpalatable): that the West, eventually, will have no choice but to degrade Russia’s economy, through sanctions and other pressure points, to the point where it backs down – that is, assuming the West wishes to retain the post-Cold War security system and defend the sovereignty of the nation states around Russia borders that the Kremlin wishes to control. 

Over the past two years, as the Kremlin has annexed Crimea, waged a war of aggression against Ukraine, intervened in Syria, and otherwise threatened Euro-Atlantic security, the situation inside Russia has deteriorated. President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism has intensified, notes Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society.

As anti-Westernism has become widespread and authorities have argued in favor of returning to “traditional values” at a time of worsening economic conditions, Putin has consolidated society around his regime—critical voices are now treated like enemies of the state. In doing so, he has revived the tradition of using history as a political weapon, he writes for The American Interest:

Putin has, to be sure, used history throughout his 16 years in power as a means of self-assertion, preserving the current political system, and legitimizing the Kremlin’s actions. But his recent manipulation of history poses a growing challenge for the West, since it helps to sustain the Kremlin’s confrontational foreign policy and fuel anti-Western sentiments within Russian society. RTWT

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is behind a move to offer the Kremlin a way out of isolation, one that reflects the need “to preserve the unity of the West (and above all the European Union)” and reflects fears that an “isolated Russia will become still more aggressive,” says analyst Lilia Shevtsova (right).

The EU will lift its sanctions on visits by members of the Russian elite to the West “in exchange for Moscow’s real cooperation in conducting elections in the DNR and LNR according to Western conditions,” adds Shevtsova, [who delivered the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2014 Lipset Lecture on Russia’s Political System: The Drama of Decay].

But there are three reasons to be concerned about how sustainable such a new “normalcy” would be, notes Window on Eurasia’s Paul Goble:

  • First, if indeed this plan goes forward, both some in the West and some in Moscow will view it not as an endpoint but as a stage and will press for more, thereby creating a situation that Moscow can better exploit because it has shown itself quite prepared to wait while those in the West hurry to propose yet more new things, including some kind of grand bargain….
  • Second, if this plan happens, what does it mean that Russia would support elections in the occupied Donbass according to Western rules? Presumably it means that Moscow won’t torpedo them, but any such elections as long as the Russian-Ukrainian border is not closed and Ukrainian sovereignty restored will reflect Russian interests whatever procedures are followed.
  • And third, such an arrangement will mean from Vladimir Putin’s perspective that he isn’t really being punished at all for his aggression given that he clearly doesn’t care what happens to his own population and is insulated from popular anger by the police state he has created and that he can engage in some further adventures with confidence that the same will be true again.

“It is here that what Shevtsova reports is both most disturbing and most frightening,” Goble adds. “If Europe allows officials now on watch lists to visit European countries, the West will have given up much of its leverage with the Russian elite whose members will have even less reason to break with Putiin than they did before.”

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