What the UK Leave Vote Means for Russia

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Nikolay Pakhomov

Rethinking Russia expert

Ever since the Brexit referendum results were made public, experts of all stripes regardless of their legitimacy have inundated the media with their forecasts, predominantly gloomy ones. The assertion that Russia will benefit considerably from Brexit was a recurring theme there. Naturally, it is impossible to name future winners and losers in world politics as it can be done in sports. All the more so as the UK leave vote does not affect Russia directly. However, apparently the referendum changes international relations root and branch. Moreover, Russia will have to pursue its foreign policy in a new environment.

Western commentators rarely give a specific description of Russia’s benefits. Whenever they write about Russia’s victory, they resort to the zero sum game logic. Russia won because the West lost. Make no haste to study the scorebook. Today we should be dealing with the post-referendum global context. It presents a range of fresh challenges for Russia, including, for instance, possible economic troubles in the EU, Russia’s major foreign economic partner.

However, as Americans would say, one could try to turn lemons into lemonade and identify the consequences of Britons’ unexpected decision which would advantage Russia’s external policy. They fall into three broad categories: stronger legitimacy of Russia’s policy abroad, enhanced economic cooperation in Europe and faster transition to multi-polarity.

Mind that at the moment these effects are possible, even probable, rather than certain. Still, the EU referendum shook world politics to the core, and we need to try to fully grasp the new context.

What can be said about Russia’s standing in the international arena? Firstly, the legitimacy of Russia’s foreign policy is practically bound to strengthen. Even Russian critics, trendsetters in public opinion, claim after the referendum that people’s desire to see their country respected worldwide is widespread nowadays, in the East as well as in the West. In Russia it is also a case. That is, Russia’s independent foreign policy is no longer considered an exception to the rule. At the operative level, Britons’ discontent would inevitably prompt mainly Western politicians to abandon their “highbrow” globalist rhetoric and their panegyrics on the globalist ideals and universal formulae for happiness. Instead, they would address the problems of citizens, who are more preoccupied with more worldly matters, like living standards.

Russia’s commitment to constructive, mutually beneficial cooperation, based on clear and pragmatic understanding of the partners’ national interests, does not come as a surprise to anyone. It is the cornerstone of Russia’s foreign policy. Rationalization and pragmatism in IR, which are likely to emerge after the victory of Brexit-backers, will contribute to the second group of consequences of the leave vote for Russia. We can expect new impetus for economic cooperation, mostly with European states. The EU leave vote largely reveals the citizens’ anger against the EU’s evolving mission. Economic cooperation for the prosperity of the member countries has been replaced with messianism.

Let me remind you that the EU constitutional basis, including the Treaty of Lisbon, abounds with slogans like the need for expanding the EU values. This mission would have gained much more support among Europeans should more down-to-earth matters, like economic development, security and migration management, have been resolved. The post-referendum era is likely to see European elites ponder over the economization of foreign policy. At least they will mull over heeding less to geopolitics – especially hard and fast rules sent to Brussels from Washington – while establishing international ties.

It, in turn, will impact most favorably on Russia’s partnership with Europe. To see it clearly, we should recall, for instance, how many times over the recent years the fate of Russia’s energy cooperation has been decided by the deterrence rhetoric and Washington’s signals of “concern” rather than by the European demand and the terms of providing Russian energy sources to satisfy it.

One can also predict a third group of the beneficial consequences of the UK’s Brexit vote. They are geopolitical. Firstly, we cannot state that despite its hard effort the EU has grown into an effective global institution. Meanwhile, we should admit that the European foreign policy, which is frequently anti-Russian, has become tangible, say, in the post-Soviet space. Over the recent decade European politicians and pundits have increasingly been outspoken in their support not only of deterring Russia, but also of “competitive integration” in response to Russia’s post-Soviet integration projects.

As of now, one cannot deny EU disintegration, to call a spade a spade. For the first time, a country – and a powerful one – is withdrawing from the integration project. Accordingly, Brussels will most probably adopt a far more open-eyed approach while assessing the candidates’ readiness to join the EU. European leaders concerned about popular sentiments will force Euro-bureaucrats to do it.

Another geopolitical outcome of the British plebiscite which Russia’s foreign policy establishment is bound to heed will refer to NATO’s changing role. It is still difficult to say which transformation its mission will undergo. Much hinges on the US stance which will be clarified following the November presidential elections. One may foresee Washington and US-oriented European elites’ attempt to attach greater significance to the alliance as an instrument of deterring Russia. However, it remains to be seen whether Europe will back the deterrence strategy and to what extent it is possible. More importantly, the question remains if European voters will tolerate extra spending in case NATO’s reinforcement requires it.

Generally, Washington’s position and particular policies in response to the European processes unleashed by the British vote constitute a determining factor in the nascent international environment. We dare say that the American foreign policy establishment also lacks a clear understanding. On the one hand, American elites are bruised by the outcome of the referendum. On the other hand, all the developments are overshadowed by the vigorous electoral campaign. Some American observers are making reasonable assumptions that the US “pivot” to Asia, which has repeatedly been proclaimed, may recede into the background. In all other respects, the future looks even hazier…

The only matter which we can definitely deal with today is that the British electorate has been able to significantly contribute to volatile world politics, to put it mildly. Over the recent years, this instability has been increasing, and during this period Russia, in general, has successfully displayed a swift response to various crises. Notwithstanding the British referendum and its aftershocks, the severe internal blow to the European integration project, one way or another, was predictable. It is also possible to predict that despite the importance of the European economic partnership, Russia will be spared major negative implications. It remains to be seen how fast Russia’s external policy will adjust to the new realities.

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