Article / 16 June 2016 at 10:00 GMT

Saxo on Brexit: Russia revels in nemesis role

Russia oil and gas expert
United Kingdom
  • British prime minister has used Russian 'card' to invigorate Stay campaign
  • Moscow more than willing to take on role of anti-hero
  • EU breakdown might be seen as playing to Russian interests
  • Reality is that Russia would take economic hit from a breakdown
  • School of thought argues EU turbulence is necessary for continent's revival
  • Keep it on our Brexit pages throughout the runup to the vote


Russia revels in playing the villain and is not beyond a
bit of hamming up of its role. Photo: WikiCommonsMedia

By Nadia Kazakova

The spectacle which is the British In/Out campaign would not be quite the same without a good old-fashioned villain. The audience should be thrilled and scared in equal measure and enjoy shouting “He's behind you!” when prompted. His backstory should be sufficiently menacing and his scar (or some plastic surgery) blindingly obvious. 

The Kremlin and Vladimir Putin personally have been cast, for many obvious reasons, as the Doctor Evil de jour. In September last year, the UK Strategic Defence Review made a point of spelling it out. “At the NATO summit in Lisbon in 2010, we committed to work with our Allies to build a partnership with Russia. But since then Russia has become more aggressive, authoritarian and nationalist, increasingly defining itself in opposition to the West”. 

The review goes on: “Russia is midway through a programme of major investment to modernise and upgrade its military, including its nuclear forces. It has also increased its nuclear exercises and rhetoric, with threats to base nuclear forces in Kaliningrad and Crimea.

"Its military activity around the territory of our Allies, and close to UK airspace and territorial waters, is designed to test our responses. Russia’s behaviour will continue to be hard to predict, and, though highly unlikely, we cannot rule out the possibility that it may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies”.

More importantly, the UK government insisted that it was at its urging that the EU has imposed sanctions designed to change Russian behaviour. The rhetoric was only slightly softened by the statement that the UK was prepared for UN-led cooperation with Russia on global security issues such as a threat from the ISIL.

Russian fighter-jet incursions into the airspace of other countries led to the downing of
a Russian plane over the Turkish/Syria border in November 2015
. Photo: iStock

Not to be outdone, the Russian academic observers at the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Science say that Cameron's government has deliberately whipped up an anti-Russian campaign in the run-up to the UK/EU negotiations in February 2016. 

It was not a coincidence, to the Russian eye, that the Litvinenko inquest took place in January 2016, followed by a high-profile BBC investigation into president Putin's alleged wealth. Also, at the end of January, NATO announced its anti-Russian strategy in Europe. 

This anti-Russian campaign might have been used as leverage to get concessions during the UK/EU talks (presumably a softer stance on Russia in the future as UK's end of the bargain). The Russians have also noticed that the “Russian threat” card has been well used by the Remain campaign inside Britain. 

There has not been much of an official reaction from the Kremlin (or much media coverage) on this perceived anti-Russian campaign. Even Cameron's statement that President Putin would be happy with Brexit did not make much of a wave. If nothing else, it has all played to the Russian official narrative that the country is seen as an enemy in the West. And, it goes, UK foreign policies are signed off in Washington, anyway.

Yet, both Russian and the British commentators see the current stage of the Russia/UK relationship as one of the lowest points in the recent history. The UK parliamentarians, in their most recent special enquiry into Russia-UK relationship lamented that the UK's focus on Russia has slipped. The country, once again, turned into “a mystery inside an enigma”. 

Uncertainty and unpredictability, as per the UK's Strategic review, translates to threat. 

There might be a clue to Russia's behaviour. 

If one pays attention, the British experts on Russia say, the Kremlin prefers to make foreign policy on a bilateral basis rather than with NATO or EU. It wants to have a seat at the table at negotiations, rather than be “on the menu”. It would be impossible without ongoing military upgrade .

On the other side, the Kremlin seems happy to have other countries – Ukraine, Syria - for the main course. The Russian administration sees the current international architecture (NATO, EU) as no longer relevant and wants a new European security treaty. 

If recent events are read from that perspective, it would indeed be in Kremlin's long-term interests to see the UK leave the EU, which could set the stage for a wholesale revision of the European economic and political project. Short-term, however, Russia would be dealt an economic blow, as it's largest trading partner by far – the EU – descends into a period of a messy divorce. 

(There is, however, another school of thought within the Russian academy as well. Regardless of the UK vote outcome, it goes, Europe will become a more flexible and therefore more viable union. The current turbulent stage in the European development might be actually a necessary outburst of creative/destructive energy).

Also, for all the prospective gains that European disintegration might potentially offer, Russia will still have a major handicap, which the current administration just fails to get. It is the economy, Mr President. Without a strong modern economy, not just a strong modern army, Russia will never be an equal partner at the table. Just a vaudeville villain, maybe.

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Spartak Moscow fans rampage in scenes somewhat reminiscent of the climax of the
England v Russia match on Marseilles on June 11. Photo: WikiCommonsMedia

— Edited by Martin O'Rourke

Nadia Kazakova is a Russian specialist, particularly on the oil and gas sector.
16 June
Tepord Tepord
messy divorce
16 June
Nadia Kazakova Nadia Kazakova
I think as any old couple, they will make up in the end
16 June
Tepord Tepord
The world’s electric vehicle fleet surpassed 1 million cars, now to the next million.... "Assuming No Further Surprises," The Oil Market Should Be Balanced In 2H16, IEA Says mаybe !
16 June
slow slow
But without strong modern army you would have no chip at all at the table.
20 June
Tepord Tepord
21 June
Tepord Tepord
Не помогло...
21 June
Tepord Tepord
Now, the government needs money again. Even if it sells almost a fifth of Rosneft, though -- worth about $11 billion today -- Moscow would still be the majority owner. The experience of the 1990s, when the Russian state's poverty led to the humiliation of the initial privatizations, is deeply ingrained not just in Putin's memory but the collective one. In a survey published two months ago, state pollster VTsIOM found about two-thirds of Russians opposed selling off state assets. Sovereignty is all.


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