Brexit is an opportunity for President Vladimir Putin to increase Russia’s influence in Europe. Brexit has granted a sense of legitimacy to the many national anti-immigration Eurosceptic movements, making the dissolution of the EU all the more likely. Mounting pressures within Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Italy are all causing a public discussion on a referendum vote. The far-right in Europe may yet see the end of 70 years of EU integration, and even possibly NATO. This opens an opportunity for Putin to take advantage of the precarious situation to gain influence. There are several ways this will happen:
- Russia is already using propaganda to weaken NATO and appear strong in the face of the EU’s potential dissolution.
- As the EU becomes more fragmented, people will identify with the concept of the “Russian World” outside of Russia itself more strongly, which would make aggressive annexations like Crimea in 2014 more likely to be justifiable in Russia’s eyes.
- An increase in bilateral economic ties and energy dependency between European nations and Russia are likely as well as the lifting of sanctions, as the UK was a major proponent of them in the EU.
The Kremlin is using propaganda domestically to gain support by making Russia appear strong as the EU “falls apart.” But its use of propaganda externally is more creative. The Russian population is used to getting propaganda, but the population of Sweden, for example, doesn’t know what to think of it, making it particularly effective as an external tool. A major part of Putin’s foreign policy is preventing the expansion of NATO. As Sweden explores the possibility of joining NATO, they have begun receiving a flood of misinformation on social media to confuse the public’s perception of the outcome of joining NATO. The propaganda claims are startling: NATO would stockpile nuclear weapons on their land, NATO could attack Russia without approval, NATO soldiers could get away with crimes without charges, and more. After public concerns mounted, the media began picking up the ideas and even the defense minister had to get involved in denying these claims. The goal of this type of misinformation is to stall the public and decision makers, and make them question the truth.
The “Russian World”
The concept of the Russian World is a large part of post-Soviet national identity in Europe, and as the EU is under threat of breaking apart, it will become a more prominent part of how Russia interacts with and influences Europe. Russia can more easily try to expand its sphere of influence using soft tactics based on this concept, or it can attempt aggressive annexations like Crimea in 2014 again and claim that it is justifiable. As a foreign policy tool, it will unite people and nations with Russian ties, just as Russia sees Europe as ripe for dividing and conquering.
Divide and Conquer
The UK was the strongest proponent of sanctions against Russia because of their aggression in Ukraine. The UK was also strongly opposed to Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline which would cross the Baltic Sea which Germany supports. With them leaving the EU, Russia will be able to increase economic ties and make Europe more dependent on Russian energy. Sanctions are likely to be lifted as well, and Russia can then make new deals with individual countries rather than the EU as a whole.
Brexit means the future of the EU and NATO are weakened and under threat, meaning opportunity for Moscow to take advantage of the situation using its propaganda, appeals to Russian World identity, and divide and conquer foreign policy.