“Putin’s Victory”: Russia and Brexit


The first and probably most important message that Russia saw in the Brexit vote was the normative leadership crisis in the EU. We are witnessing the birth of a new mainstream in Europe – anti-EU and anti-Brussels.

“Putin is to blame for everything” – we have got used to this sentiment expressed by Western journalists and experts during the crisis in Russia’s relations with the European Union and the United States, which has lasted more than two years now. Russians greet it with a hefty dose of irony. A ton of demotivational posters and memes along these lines have become incredibly popular in Russian social media. Here’s one of the more grotesque examples: the Russian President is told that US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki is pregnant. He asks: “Am I the only one to blame for this or the whole of Russia too?”

This line of joking has already joined the pantheon of Russian political humor. The reason is simple and understandable: the total demonization of Russia during the current hybrid war has run into the solid Russian traditions of carnival culture (described by Mikhail Bakhtin), which is coloring the perception of global conflicts among wide swathes of the Russian public. The thick layer of anti-American black humor formed in Soviet popular culture during the Cold War has been dug up by the popular consciousness and adapted to new realities. Moreover, this sort of demonization (“Russia is to blame for everything”) ascribes to us a degree of power and influence on global politics that we simply do not have, and this is quite gratifying. As a result, mocking Russia’s demonization a la Bakhtin has become a part of life for us since the very start of the Ukrainian crisis (I analyzed this phenomenon in more detail in the article “After Crimea: Visual grotesque in Russian social media” on the website of the “Russia in Global Affairs”  journal.

And yet former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s attempt to blame Putin for Brexit still came as a bolt from the blue. Some Russian experts even began quietly suggesting that the esteemed ex-ambassador might have fallen victim to a paranoid form of Russophobia that is virtually an occupational hazard of Western Sovietologists.

However, the situation is not as simple and grotesque as it seems, and McFaul’s statement about “Putin’s victory” on Brexit is a good excuse to analyze what the UK referendum on leaving the EU spells for Russia.

The first and probably most important message that Russia saw in the Brexit vote was the normative leadership crisis in the EU. During the entire past decade political scientists focused on the EU discussed the union in terms of “normative power.” This discussion was unwittingly launched by the American neocons when Robert Kagan’s book “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in New World Order” and similar writings appeared in the context of the Iraqi crisis in 2003 (and the rift in US relations with Germany and France). Their authors draw a clear dividing line between the US global “neo-imperial” strategy that relied on “hard military power,” and the EU’s alternative approaches that emphasized “soft power” and persuasion. US neocons saw all this as naïve, utopian idealism. Kagan cast this EU policy as an attempt to build a paradise on Earth. He didn’t ignore the elements of carnival culture either, which, incidentally, explains the notorious words spoken by Kagan’s wife Victoria Nuland (“f*ck the EU”) during the Ukrainian crisis.

The EU responded to the irony of US neocons by seeking to turn a perceived weakness into a strength. This led to the theory of “normative power,” which maintains that the EU is an example to follow, a yardstick of morally responsible political systems, and its mission is to disseminate global political values. Moreover, this concept of “normative power” has transcended the framework of a simple political theory and was reflected in the EU’s founding documents. Thus, the Lisbon Treaty mentions that the EU pursues a “value based policy.” At this moment the EU’s entire policy (both foreign and domestic) ceased being ideologically neutral and oriented only to the pragmatic implementation of its own or national interests. Instead, the Lisbon Treaty was the EU renouncing neutrality and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries in favor of an a priori ideologically motivated policy that would have no restrictions on interference in the affairs of other countries for the sake of promoting its own values. It was this approach that the EU proclaimed to be an example for policy in the 21st century as it positioned itself as the normative ideal exemplifying all the best qualities. Brexit dealt a very heavy blow to this concept of EU normative superiority because no country would have given up the world’s best normative system for no reason.

Understandably, EU countries had already expressed doubt in the EU’s normative leadership, reflected in the growing popularity of the so-called Euroskeptic parties and the tough anti-Brussels rhetoric of new popular progressive protest movements that were particularly noticeable in Southern Europe, such as Syriza in Greece, Indignados and later on Podemos in Spain, and the Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy. However, in the past the European mainstream dismissed these mounting protests as marginal, extremist and pro-Russian (of course!). Brexit brought these protests to an entirely new level. In fact, we are witnessing the birth of a new mainstream in Europe – anti-EU and anti-Brussels.

What does it mean for Russia? It is enough to look at it from the point of view of our national interests. The post-Lisbon EU almost instantly revealed itself as an extremely tough and adamant critic, and later opponent, of Russia. This does not amount simply to a geopolitical or military-political rivalry that determines Russia’s relations with the United States. Russia is used to geopolitical rivalry. But the EU’s “values first” post-Lisbon strategy proved to be not only antagonistic to Russia but also existentially incompatible with its modern foreign policy strategy of protecting national interests across the board. Now that Brexit has torn the gold leaf from the EU’s normative seal, the EU may become more responsible for its actions and more respectful of the UN principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. This is in Russia’s interests, and to this extent we should welcome Brexit.

Moreover, Brexit could trigger a chain reaction of exits in a number of other EU countries. Public opinion polls show that over half of voters in the Czech Republic may vote to leave the EU. The numbers are also high in Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria, which speaks to a much more interesting and revealing trend. Brits always kept their distance from the EU by not joining the Schengen and Euro zones and pursuing their own “insular” and Atlanticist ideology. Therefore, their withdrawal from the EU reflects a long-term trend in public opinion.

This trend is much more telling in Central and Eastern Europe. Just a decade ago these countries were dying to enter the EU, demonstrating Euro-euphoria rather than merely Euro-optimism. At that time the former socialist countries believed that only the EU could lead to a bright new future, but in just ten years they have become completely disenchanted. This is an even heavier blow to the EU’s normative leadership than Brexit. The EU failed to prove itself to the countries and societies that blindly believed in it just a few years ago. What is this if not the normative defeat of the EU?

We are witnessing how it is changing the foreign policy of many Central and Eastern European countries that were mostly critical of Russia in the past two decades for obvious reasons. But now more and more of them are pursuing a less unequivocal policy against the backdrop of the EU’s normative decline. They are resuming dialogue with Russia, no matter how difficult and critical it may be. This is in our national interests, so we are grateful for Brexit once again.

Post-Brexit Euro-skepticism has begun to grow not only in the former socialist countries, but in the EU’s old members as well. The terms “Frexit” in France and “Dexit” in Germany became popular overnight. Spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova responded to this by coining another new term – “Whoexit” – in another nod to Bakhtin’s carnival culture.

Another major aspect of Brexit is that EU membership is coming to be seen merely a technical means of achieving national political goals. To call a spade a spade, this is the position of Scottish politicians today. It is abundantly clear that their main priority is separation from Britain rather than EU membership. They are using the membership issue merely as an excuse to hold another referendum on leaving Britain. This shows the value of using a normative ideal as a tool of separatist blackmail.

The Scottish example has already caused a cacophony of competing reactions in the EU. Some EU politicians openly demand that the EU should punish anti-European England and support pro-European Scotland. In this context we in Russia immediately recalled the EU’s many statements on the Ukrainian crisis. But ironically now EU politicians are turning this manipulative rhetoric against themselves. This is why efforts to spur on Britain’s disintegration and turn it into South Britain could seriously destabilize the EU.

The response from EU countries was not long in coming. Spain has already announced that it will block any direct contacts between the EU and Scotland. At the same time tensions around the Gibraltar crisis are mounting in Spain itself. There are now realistic scenarios in which war could break out between the two NATO members. The post-Lisbon EU irresponsibly played around with “good” and “bad” separatism (Kosovo, Libya and Ukraine), and we are seeing the results now. Now it is turning against the EU and the consequences may be dire.

To sum up, it is clear that Brexit is no victory for Russia or McFaul’s reputation. This is a heavy normative defeat of the EU for which it is wholly to blame.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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