Putin Smiles as Hard Brexiters Become his Willing Fools

Russia wants Britain to leave the EU - and it would be delighted if more countries would follow. It is easy to see why. The Kremlin has long viewed the union as an existential threat, one that has empowered Russia’s former satellites and substantially reduced Russia’s own sphere of influence. To a country that still sees the world in terms of ‘great powers’ and the need for national prestige, it should not be surprising that there is a lack of harmony between Russia and the EU.

Along with NATO, the EU is one of the main players that have thwarted Moscow’s ambitions by arguing and promoting sanctions. After Russia’s the illegal annexation of the Crimea, it was the EU that took the lead in travel bans, asset freezes and restrictions on investment, financing and trade with Russia. Thanks to the EU Russia’s largest banks, its energy sector and defence sector have been targeted, threatening to do tremendous damage to their economy. Although there has been some hurt, it has admittedly yet to lead to a knockout blow.

As a result Russia wants to cause Europe harm, and the best way to do that is to sow discord among the member states of the European Union. There is mounting evidence that they have been attempting to interfere in Czech, Hungarian and Austrian elections and there are notable links to European far-right parties. The Kremlin is delighted by the rise of populist Euroscepticism as it hinders a cause they fear the most, greater European integration. If the EU ever decides to implement full political and fiscal union, along with a unified military and co-ordinated security forces, Russia will be the loser.

They must have been particularly worried by Junker’s state of the union address which rightly talks about the need for ‘a Europe that protects, a Europe that empowers, a Europe that defends’.

Responding with its latter day version of Weltpolitik, Russia hopes to stop that at any cost, and it looks like they are achieving it. Western countries and former Eastern Bloc countries are now at loggerheads on numerous issues, from the death penalty in Hungary to political involvement in the judiciary in Poland. Russia has been delighted by the anti-EU backlash that has resulted from what has been portrayed domestically as an attempt to subvert the national governments of EU member states. As the Lithuanian Foreign Minister recently said ‘I know who is gaining. Those who are not happy with our cohesion’.

This again brings us back to Brexit. Theresa May’s speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet clearly made the link between Russia and its interference with democratic elections. She claimed it wanted to ‘weaponise information’ and its interference was ‘threatening the international order’. She admitted Russia was ‘meddling in elections’ but failed to mention this in connection with one crucial vote, namely the referendum to Leave the European Union last year.

May has set herself up as the champion of an extreme form of Brexit without even questioning how the close victory for Leave was achieved

Yet there is already evidence from Facebook that there was Russian interference with the vote. Although it admitted that from what they know there was at present no evidence of ‘significant co-ordination’. They do imply there were some attempts at least, especially given that they changed their statement quickly from an outright denial of interference.

It is also clear that there is a link between the Russian Internet Research Agency and pro-Brexit relating tweeting during the referendum. Research by City University has highlighted 13,500 ‘sock puppets’ that posted persistent anti-EU messages before the referendum. There is certainly enough evidence to amount to the smoking gun needed for a full judge-led inquiry at least, something some MPs are already calling for.

Theresa May seems to have been rather more cavalier about Russian interference in British elections despite denouncing its prevalence elsewhere.  This seems just a little bit odd. May has set herself up as the champion of an extreme form of Brexit without even questioning how the close victory for Leave was achieved. Through her actions she and her zealous Eurosceptic allies have arguably become willing tools of the Kremlin, carrying out a Russian agenda of chaos and discord without complaints.

Evidence of Russian interference does not mean we can easily reverse Brexit. Evidence of the promotion of outright falsehoods and possible complicity in electoral fraud does not seem to have dampened the most hardened Brexiters. It may though change the narrative slightly, as it becomes clearer that polls have started to swing back to the pro-EU side, this will help add momentum to the call for a second referendum or an ‘exit from Brexit’. If a judge-led enquiry comes back with clear evidence of Russian complicity and the Electoral Commission’s current investigation into irregularities in the Leave.EU campaign proves offences were committed then this could help seal Brexit’s fate.

Of course, with May seemingly determined to sabotage her own country’s economy and her recent foolhardy decision to play a dangerous form of gesture politics by writing the departure date into legislation, it may turn out that we will be leaving no matter how the vote was obtained. As more economic discord, political and diplomatic disunity is created on all sides as a result; the only person smiling in the end will be Vladimir Putin.



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