The glass is half-empty.

Photographer: Grigory Dukor/AFP/Getty Images

Post-U.K. Europe Won't Be Friendlier to Putin

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Even though Russia had little, if any, influence on the outcome of the Brexit vote, some see the event as a victory for President Vladimir Putin. However, there's no evidence Russia stands to gain and it even could be one of the losers.

The "remain" campaign has invoked Putin to try to scare Britons into voting for the status quo. Prime Minister David Cameron said in May that Putin and the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi would welcome the U.K.'s departure from the European Union. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in March that Russia was "the only country" that wanted the U.K. to leave. On Friday, he said he suspected that Putin was "feeling a little less pressure" after the victory of the Brexit camp. "He'll be feeling a bit more upbeat about his prospects of eventually getting these European Union sanctions watered down," Hammond added.

QuickTake Why Britain Voted to Leave the EU

Some Russia-watchers in the U.S. also suggested that Brexit benefits Putin. "Tonight is a giant victory for Putin's foreign policy objectives," Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, tweeted Friday. "Give him credit." In a separate tweet, McFaul explained that Putin had "lamented collapse of USSR and Warsaw Pact, so he's delighted to see cracks in European unity."

Russian officials have pooh-poohed such claims. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he wouldn't comment on Hammond's statement because he lacked the necessary medical qualifications. Putin himself said Friday that the remain campaign only mentioned him to "improperly influence the domestic public opinion" -- which "did not work out." He said Brexit could have negative economic consequences for Russia because it was hurting currency and commodity markets, and it wouldn't affect Europe's sanctions policy.

There is something to both Hammond's and McFaul's claims, though. Senior Russian officials and Putin's political allies have made it clear they were expecting a positive fallout from Brexit, even though the Russian leader himself himself didn't. 

"Without the U.K., there'll be no one in the EU to defend sanctions against us so zealously," Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin tweeted. And Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote a long Facebook post full of unconcealed schadenfreude:

Great Britain's political establishment, which lobbied rabidly for the anti-Russian EU sanctions Hammond mentioned in the context of Britain's own referendum, has left Europeans high and dry, and now, as it wishes to shed all responsibility, it's saying something like, 'It was a nice dinner, we're leaving and the Europeans will pick up the check.'

Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament's upper house, says he expects a livelier debate on sanctions now that the U.K. is gone. 

In other words, Russia hopes the EU will now soften its stance. It's not clear, though, that Brexit will have much effect on the sanctions, which have to be approved unanimously to stay in effect. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was the driving force behind the measures to a greater extent than Cameron, and Putin must realize that Germany is critical. He has been cultivating a relationship with Merkel's coalition partner, Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who will visit Moscow next week, to start gradually weakening the restrictions.

In any case, even before the British vote, there were signs of fatigue with the sanctions, which are not helping the stalled peace process in eastern Ukraine. The pending six-month extension of the restrictions, which is all but decided, may be the last one before the EU begins to water them down -- not because of Brexit but because of their questionable effectiveness. 

The matter of whether Putin wants a weaker EU is not necessarily linked to the sanctions. Kosachev said Friday that Russia wasn't interested in the destabilization of its biggest trading partner, particularly one whose currency accounts for 40 percent of the Russian central bank's foreign reserves. Putin always  puts geopolitics ahead of economics, however, so this consideration takes a back seat to the goal of weakening U.S. influence in Europe. 

"The biggest long-term consequence of all this," Russia's business ombudsman Boris Titov wrote on Facebook, "is that Brexit will sever Europe from the Anglo-Saxons. This is not Britain's independence from Europe but Europe's independence from the US." There are echoes of this idea in Zakharova's post, too: She accused the EU of subjugating its independent foreign policy decision-making to the U.S.

One reason Russia has been supporting euroskeptic movements across Europe is that they're anti-American. A rift between the EU and the U.S. would be useful to Putin for more than just the easing of sanctions: It would weaken what the Russian president views as an existential threat to his regime from the U.S.

It's far from certain, however, that the U.S. 's influence in Europe will wane. There are other U.S.-oriented nations in the union: Poland and the Baltic states are examples, and even Germany. The U.K. remains a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization along with most EU members. The U.K.'s exit is no reason for the rest of Europe to become more anti-American -- unless it gives rise to more euroskeptic electoral successes and a greater representation in parliaments for Putin's allies.

That assumes EU leaders will do nothing to fix the union. There is still a chance that they will react to Brexit by shoring up the organization and that the nucleus, its founding members, will try to save the European dream. If the EU becomes more cohesive without the U.K., which often pulled in the other direction, and if the U.S. plays a role, Brexit may end up being a setback for Putin's foreign policy goals.

Both the immediate matter of sanctions and the long-term state of the EU, as well as its relationship with the U.S., never depended on the U.K. as much as on Europe's continental powers. The U.K. 's exit won't change this setup. It can, however, benefit Putin in one clear way: Preoccupied with post-Brexit reforms and tied up in tough divorce negotiations with the U.K., Europe won't be paying much attention to the post-Soviet states that would like to join it, Ukraine and Georgia. EU expansion is not an option in the foreseeable future, and these nations have too many problems for the EU to take them on. This increases the chances that Ukraine's attempt to break out of Russia's orbit will fail.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net