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7 July 2016

Russia’s perception of Brexit: by no means a reason to celebrate

Moscow’s reaction to the possibility of Brexit demonstrated Russia’s interest in maintaining the status quo when it comes to the European integrational project

Some in the Western political-and-expert community believe that Brexit constitutes a victory for Russia, supposedly striving for a Europe of nation states which it would find easier to come to terms with, in contrast to the European Union, throughout which principles of pan-European and transatlantic solidarity currently prevail. However, analysis of public discourse - speeches of the political leadership, leading experts and television propagandists - in Russia reveals that the perspective on the consequences of Brexit for Moscow can hardly be described as univocal.

As is often the case in Russia, conclusions drawn regarding recent events are expressed not in economic, but purely political, terms. Many Russian newsmakers including President Putin are convinced that both the global and European economy will quickly recoup losses in the medium term and that it is unlikely that there will be a break-up of the UK or that London will cease to be a global financial center. Accordingly, Russia’s economic losses are also not considered to be serious. In this regard, only an official of the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation succeeded in penetrating the wall of noise with his attempt to point to the volatility resulting from Brexit as an excuse for the postponement of indexation of pensions.

In public discourse, the results of the British referendum have been used as a pretext for declaring that Brussels’ bureaucracy has finally been chastened for its complete detachment from ordinary EU citizens, for dictating “how long a cucumber should be” to nation states, siphoning off vast resources from rich to poor member states, imposing migrants upon societies (both European and non-European), and disregarding expressions of the will of the people (both in Crimea and the Netherlands as regards EU association with Ukraine).

Russia’s second TV channel paid special attention to “the issue of European bureaucracy”. On June 26, on his “Vesti Nedeli” (News of the Week) program, Dmitry Kiselyov used such expressions as “the consummation of a beautiful utopia is already gone”, “the balloon known as the EU is deflating”, “EU commissioners, as gray as moths, all want to take charge”. Commentators invited to a number of talk shows on the “Russia” TV channel – such as Zhirinovsky – stated that the EU is on the verge of collapse, European values are being discredited, and countries such as Ukraine, Serbia and Turkey undoubtedly intend to reconsider their “European choice”. In this regard, one of the main theses is that if the EU does not carry out internal reform (by handing back power to nation states), big challenges lay ahead.

However, if we take a closer look at Russian public discourse, vigilance tends to dominate regarding Brexit. It is no coincidence that Putin declared that the referendum was a result of the “superficial attitude and the hubris of the UK government” at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Tashkent. This was more than a riposte to Prime Minister Cameron who claimed that the Russian president would become a primary beneficiary of Brexit during his agitation campaign. Experts such as Vyacheslav Nikonov and Konstantin Kosachev commented thusly: in their opinion, Cameron tried to get rid of Eurosceptics in his country and exert influence on Brussels. However, he ultimately suffered a defeat and left British society divided. The British elite are now in a state of shock and separatist sentiments are gaining support in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Therefore, even if Brexit doesn’t lead to substantial damage to the UK, it will hardly bring real benefits or serve as a positive example for countries on how to exit united Europe or even on how to “counter” European bureaucracy. In this regard, it was interesting to observe the way the Russian First Channel, which strived to remain neutral by airing all views and nuances of the British referendum, actually emphasized the caricatural nature of Britain’s debates about Brexit.

The above mentioned Russian experts who commented on the results of Brexit are not at all convinced that Brussels will try to somehow punish London despite lone voices baying for blood. We are rather speaking of the first reaction to shock. In this regard, former Minister of Finance Alexey Kudrin stated that Brexit would not alter relations between the EU and UK considerably. All the agreements and legal norms would continue to be binding. Therefore, the chaos and panic in the EU is rather a transient state according to Russian experts, and London and the EU will find a new modus vivendi whereby the “bureaucratic monster” in Brussels will mind its P’s and Q’s.

With respect to an ideologeme about the collapse of the European Union, Russian experts are skeptical, at least at the moment. To begin with, continental EU countries are said to derive greater benefits from membership, which is especially true of net-recipients (which constitute the majority of countries). Secondly, it is noted that the UK is a unique state with an “island” mentality, historical traditions and a large economy, and that it can afford to take such a political step as exiting the EU, whereas other countries are far more dependent on the European project.

Speaking of more long-term consequences, Fyodor Lukyanov shares an interesting thought: He believes that Washington is more likely to benefit from Brexit than it is to lose out. Firstly, in his opinion, NATO will now become the main means by which to unite European states, which is not at all good for Russia and which will in fact strengthen the US position on the continent. Secondly, according to the Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, the United States may take advantage of the discord between Germany and France and strengthen its influence on the European continent which, as Moscow believes, used to make attempts to forge its identity independently of Washington (in the days when the UK established a political balance in the European Union). Other Russian experts have also mentioned in passing that the U.S. is rather interested in a weaker European Union during debates in various fora.

Apparently, from Moscow’s point of view, the only positive thing about Brexit, according to Russian political discourse, is the fact that Russia will probably find it easier to reach agreements with continental Europe since the anti-Russian camp will be weakened and the Baltic States and Poland will find themselves isolated without the support of a strong state. Nevertheless, no great illusions remain about the prospects of returning to the model of “business as usual”.

Thus, Brexit is not perceived in Russia as an accelerant for radical changes in European politics. In the eyes of the Russian leadership, it was an ill-conceived escapade of folly which will not ultimately bring about benefits for the UK as a nation state. Besides, Russian experts see Brexit rather as a poisoned chalice for Moscow: Washington will be presented with new opportunities to strengthen NATO and weaken the European Union as a project which could potentially become an independent center of power.

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