Christmas will come early for Putin if Britain votes to leave EU
Putin seems to be lucky even beyond the gambles he has actively chosen to take
By now it cannot be denied that Vladimir Putin is a gambler. It also cannot be denied that he has been remarkably successful in the gambles he has taken. His adventure in Syria has paid off much better than anyone could have expected – he has secured just the outcome he wanted, and has gained a huge amount international clout while doing so. And he continues to ride high despite his intervention in Ukraine, where, let us not forget, he has achieved what was supposed to be impossible in Europe in the 21st Century: he has annexed an entire province from another European country.
But Putin seems to be lucky even beyond the gambles he has actively chosen to take. And nowhere is this more the case than in Europe. The EU and its previous incarnations have been a bulwark against Russian power. Under the umbrella of NATO and the protection of the United States, Europe has been unassailable militarily from the Russian threat. But specifically under the European common market project, it has also been economically protected from Russian domination. And as the European project has moved Eastwards after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, more and more countries have enjoyed both those protections.
The centrifugal forces which a Brexit would unleash could easily see a number of other member states follow that precedentAzeem Ibrahim
But safety, it seems, breeds complacency. Even as Russia is becoming ever more assertive militarily, more and more Europeans, especially in Western countries, seem to have no notion of threat from this resurgence. So much so, that they seem quite happy to let the very international institutions that have guaranteed the longest period of peace in this continent’s history wither away. Most European nations have been spending less than they are required to under NATO arrangements for many, many years. And the European Union is looking increasingly fragile these days.
Many fear that Brexit may well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. To be fair, it would be a very big straw. Not only is Britain one of the most important countries in the EU, alongside Germany and France, but Brexit will set a very dangerous precedent. And the centrifugal forces which a Brexit would unleash could easily see a number of other member states follow that precedent, now that Euroscepticism is riding high in many member countries.
Putin, for his part, probably cannot believe that his investment in Eurosceptic far-right and left political movements in the last few years could pay off quite so spectacularly. I don’t imagine that when he set out to do this he envisioned that the slow disintegration of the European Union would have been on the cards. More likely, his aim was no more than to stir up trouble to keep Western leaders distracted from his designs on the Middle East, and on the countries he regards as in the Russian sphere of influence: the former Soviet countries.
And yet, here we are: staring down the barrel of the gun. A referendum on leaving the European Union in Britain, France with the real prospect of a Front National president next year, Austria barely having avoided a neo-Nazi president, and every kind of extremism running rampant throughout the continent.
When the Leave campaign in Britain stops pushing anti-immigrant propaganda eerily reminiscent of the Third Reich, they will tell you that this is about “Sovereignty” and “Freedom” from Brussel’s yoke. What they neglect to mention is that sovereignty does not necessarily look like it does for the United States and China. It can also look like it does to Ukraine.
Britain has not had the experience of being a middle-sized country pushed around by forces beyond its control for the better part of 300 years. Brexiters seem to think that outside of the European Union they will have the freedom to do trade and regulation just the way they want to – just like Britain used to have when it was the largest Empire in the world. But those days are gone.
Freedom to do what you want whatever you want to do is not the same as the capacity to do whatever you want to do – as any broke teenager who moves out of their parents’ house soon discovers. If Britain does not have the maturity to understand this in advance of a potential Brexit, it will suffer the due consequences. But much worse, so will the rest of Europe. Ukrainians will be looking on with dismay. And the Baltics with despair.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim
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