Last Friday, as the world woke up to the news that for the first time, a nation had decided to leave the European bloc, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted his country had acted “very properly” and hadn’t “even tried to influence” the referendum which took place the previous day in Britain on its membership in the EU. Putin was responding to claims made by British politicians, including Prime Minister David Cameron, that the Kremlin was supporting the Brexit.
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It’s hard to take Putin’s denial at face value. Ironically, his comments were made at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a six-member forum set up by Russia and China in hopes of counter-balancing the much greater influence of the European Union. That morning, the news bulletin on Russia’s state television channel began with the headline that that “Britain has chosen independence,” while subsequent reports claimed that “the breakup of the European Union has begun.”
Dmitry Kiselyov, the Kremlin’s main mouthpiece and the head of Russia’s official news agency, described the British who voted to leave the union as “brave” and Cameron as “devious.” He said that the EU “is now a political monster with totalitarian ambitions” and that “its balloon is deflating.” In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the Kremlin-funded English news channel, Russia Today, heavily boosted the “Leave” campaign, interviewing predominantly Brexiteers.
Putin’s Russia had a double interest in Brexit. In the days of the 19th centry “Great Game” for influence and dominance of the Far East, Britain was the main geopolitical rival of the Russian empire. Today, it is still seen as the United States’ main ally and one of the pillars of NATO. Weakening Britain is a Russian strategic objective. At the same time, the Kremlin is also interested in loosening the EU, a body that Putin believes — with some justification — weakens Russian influence over neighboring states, former Soviet republics and satellites.
The Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which Russia still regards as its fiefdom, are all both EU and NATO member states. Russian opposition to an agreement between the EU and Ukraine was one of the main reasons for the outbreak of the Maidan Revolution two and a half years ago, leading to the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The EU still enforces painful economic sanctions on Russia following the its actions in Ukraine. Sergey Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, tweeted on Friday that with Britain out of the EU “there won’t be anyone to so zealously defend sanctions against us.”
Many Russians see Britain as the central link between North America and Europe, or what they see as the Anglo-Saxon bloc and Eurasia with Russia at its center. With Britain out of Europe, they believe it will be easier for them to expand their influence westward.
Britain still holds significant strategic assets, which ostensibly are contingent on its EU membership. The United Kingdom is a founding member of NATO, has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council along with the power of veto, operates four nuclear missile-carrying submarines and has a “special relationship” with the United States. Together with the U.S., it is a central member of the “five eyes” intelligence-sharing club, which includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Britain also leads the Commonwealth of Nations, a group of 53 countries around the world which were once imperial assets in one way or another and continue to cooperate on a wide range of issues. Queen Elizabeth remains the head of state of fifteen countries besides Britain.
“Leave” campaigners claimed that these assets would ensure Britain remained a major power after the Brexit. But nothing is guaranteed. Britain, the only nation to fight Nazi Germany for the entire six years of the World War II, bankrupted itself in the process, which forced it to relinquish its empire. Its status today is largely due to London's prominence as a global financial center, its historical international relations and its relatively high expenditure on the armed forces and intelligence services — it's one of the few NATO members to spend more than two percent of its GDP on defense.
Leaving the EU could easily jeopradize all this. Economic analysts are forecasting the departure of international corporations, the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and a prolonged recession, which will make it much more difficult for Britain to continue maintaining a relatively large military and its intelligence service. Over the next few years, the British government will have to decide on renewing its Trident nuclear submarine force, which costs tens of billions of pounds. Even if the government finds that money, it may be hard pressed to operate them, as the only submarine base in the U.K. is on the western coast of Scotland, which is now threatening to secede rather than leave the EU. Finding and building a new base on a much shorter coastline will be difficult and extremely costly. Great Britain could become a much smaller and weaker Britain, without Scotland, nuclear weapons or powerful armed forces.
The upheaval in Europe also has wider implications in Israel’s neighborhood. Over the last year, Russia has transformed into a central actor, alongside Iran, in Syria’s civil war. Unlike the western powers which — aside from airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in eastern Syria — have hesitated to intervene in the ongoing carnage since the war's beginning, in one year, Russia has deployed thousands of personnel, dozens of warplanes and other military units to the country, propping up the Assad regime. Putin has ignored the weak western objections over the deaths of thousands of Syrian civilians by his bombers, under the guise of attacking “terror bases.” Russia now holds Syria’s fate and has replaced the U.S. as the main geopolitical power influencing the region.
Three months ago, Russia announced it was pulling most of its forces out of Syria, but in reality, it has continued its deep military involvement. With Europe even more preoccupied with its internal problems and the U.S. administration in the twilight of President Barack Obama’s term, it is hard to see who will stop Putin from further increasing his influence.