international analysis and commentary

Why Brexit divides the US and Russia


The old Cold War’s two great powers have split once again over Europe’s fate. Or rather, they already were split, primarily over NATO’s and the European Union’s expansion eastward. The Ukraine crisis has imparted a dramatic quality to a problem whose origins lie in the (opposite) ways in which Moscow and Washington have experienced (or, in Russia’s case, suffered) the evolution of Europe’s setup since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But at this juncture the situation has become far more complicated and it no longer concerns only the Old World’s periphery. It goes right to its heart.

In this final phase of the Obama presidency, the United States wants a more integrated and stronger European Union, which is why it has also been rooting for a Brexin (the UK’s ongoing membership of the EU). The President’s visit to London starting on April 22 is designed as an explicit endorsement of David Cameron’s “Remain” stance.

Explaining Washington’s position in “no-nonsense” terms, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass stressed that Europe without the United Kingdom would be dominated by Germany to an even greater degree than it is already. Haass argued that such a prospect is not something to be welcomed because German dominance would split the continent politically; it would mark the success of a “mercantile” economic view and further bolster Europe’s already considerable reluctance to play an active international role. The concept that he was basically trying to get across is that an (excessively) German Europe would mean a weaker Europe. At the same time, if the United Kingdom were no longer pegged to the EU, it would carry little weight and would therefore be less useful also for the United States as its (erstwhile “special”) ally.

We may agree to a greater or lesser extent with this clear-cut view, but if nothing else it shows that, from the standpoint of a great power in a phase of partial redeployment – which is what the United States is today and may be even more in the future –, a strong Europe basically means an “Atlantic” Europe yet a Europe less dependent on US tutelage; and it confirms the considerable gap existing between the United States and Germany in relation to the strategies to be pursued in the economic policy sphere – a gap which emerged quite clearly in the crisis in 2008 and which is confirmed by the tough debate in Germany on the TTIP, the Transatlantic Partnership treaty that is the subject of endless negotiation. 

For most of the Putin era, Russia on the other hand has been interested (almost by definition) in seeing a weak Europe, which is why it backs the Euroskeptic parties (among President Putin’s most enthusiastic admirers), with their support for Brexit. After drawing a line down the middle of Ukraine to mark the impassable border beyond which Europe may not expand further eastward, it has also acted without scruple on the southern front. Moscow’s operation in Syria since September 2015 has kept Al-Asad in the saddle, in the conflict-ridden vacuum created by Obama’s partial “rethrenchment”.

Thus, Russia’s traditional divide-and-rule policy, which it has been pursuing for years with its gas pipelines, has now been enriched by an additional factor: politics, in the shape of the foothold offered Putin by Europe’s populist and nationalist parties, which are partly attracted by his neo-authoritarian model and partly eager to use Russia as a weapon against Brussels. Two examples of this are the recent visit to Moscow by Viktor Orban, the most vociferous of the (anti-) European nationalistic prime ministers; and the considerable financial support that French National Front leader Marine Le Pen is seeking from Russian banks. In addition to this, there is Russia’s traditional importance for the Balkan Orthodox world, from Greece and Cyprus upward, with its central role for the refugees’ routes and its competition with Turkey.

It is no longer just a question of Europe’s flanks. The point is that the “heart” of Europe is taking the full blast of the multiple crises which the EU is having to face and to which it is managing to respond only extremely slowly and extremely laboriously. The wind of renationalization is blowing through the Old Continent’s capitals and it is not simply a result of pressure being brought to bear by rightwing or leftwing populist parties. Thus this Europe that is finding it impossible to become a power in its own right ends up once again being vulnerable to external pressures, that Europeans seem incapable of governing – either together or separately. In this context, Brexit would please Moscow – making it more difficult to keep the US anchored to the EU.

This is a revised version of the article posted in Aspenia online on February 23, 2016.