The official Kremlin reaction to the results of the UK’s 23 June “Brexit” referendum was marked by calm and measured spin. Russian President Vladimir Putin vaguely told reporters in Tashkent that Britain’s vote to leave the EU would have global consequences, but that it was too early to tell whether they would be positive or negative. He linked the outcome with British voters’ unwillingness to support weaker economies as well as fears for their security.
Speaking 24 June in St. Petersburg, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed concern that a UK exit might damage the global economy. Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Russia’s Federal Council, stated that the British vote put the entire EU at risk of disintegration and worried that this could damage Russia’s established trade ties. Putin also condemned British Prime Minister David Cameron for claiming that the Russian president had backed Brexit. (Cameron predicted last month that the Russian leader “would be happy” if Brexit happened and the EU were weakened).
This reaction contradicts Moscow’s longstanding complaints that the current global order, in which the EU plays a key role, is unfairly rigged against Russia’s interests. At the moment Russia apparently intends to send the message that it wants to be a constructive international player—in part because only in doing so might Western sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine be lifted—a key Kremlin adversary seems to be unraveling on its own.
But elsewhere, many Russian politicians cheered Brexit—a position that probably reflects Putin’s private thinking. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin welcomed Britain’s departure. Boris Titov, the Kremlin’s small-business ombudsman, hoped the exit would take Europe away from the “Anglo-Saxons” (i.e., the United States). Aleksey Pushkov, head of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, called the outcome a “personal failure of Barack Obama,” who had urged Britons to stay in.
Indeed by all key measures, the referendum was a foreign policy victory for Moscow. Britain’s exit weakens EU unity—a key Russian foreign policy objective—diminishes the international role of the UK, a longstanding Kremlin antagonist, and likely will distract the association from the key issues facing it: immigration, economic stagnation, and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
Putin predicted after the referendum that the EU’s sanctions policy against Russia was unlikely to change. Here too, he is likely dissembling. Many Kremlin observers expect those sanctions to be cancelled or substantially watered down by year’s end, and last week’s results won’t make the challenge of extending them any easier.
In the Baltics, as the latest CEPA briefs show, Russia continues to use information warfare to undermine regional security. In Estonia, a prominent Russian-language website published an article incorrectly claiming that the country’s parliament refused to recognize Stalinist repression against non-ethnic Estonians. In Latvia, a Russian-language propaganda portal tried to discredit the reputation of NATO troops. Our third brief shows how a pro-Kremlin website in Lithuania used German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s recent criticism of NATO military maneuvers to defame his Lithuanian counterpart. As controversy over Steinmeier’s comments rages on, Moscow’s propaganda machine stands ready to exploit divisions in German society.