International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. Pnina Shuker is a Researcher (Neubauer fellow) at INSS and PhD candidate at Bar-Ilan University. In her text entitled “Why Russia is pleased with the Brexit?” she is analysing Brexit referendum and the issue of Russian involvement in the referendum.
● Pnina Shuker,
Researcher (Neubauer fellow) at INSS - Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, PhD candidate at Bar-Ilan University
Last month, the UK flag was removed from the Brussels European Council building to mark the end of 47 years of British membership in the EU. Despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson's dramatic statement that Britain is now facing a “dawn of a new era”, the implications of this step for Britain at this stage are unclear, and the forecasts for the coming years are quite bleak.
But at least for Russia, this is a positive turnaround: Russia, together with China, has established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - the Euro-Asian response to the Union, and it supports radical right-wing parties across Europe calling for the EU to retire from within. The EU report from June 2019 claims that Russian attempts to intervene have been identified. Russia considers the EU as a competitor for its influence in Eastern Europe, and therefore wants it weakened and traditionally promotes the narrative that the EU is in chaos and is on the verge of dismantling, with the aim of polarizing positions and dissolution. It is therefore clear that Britain's retirement from the Union - the second largest economy in the Union and an important supporter of imposing sanctions on Russia due to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula - is in line with Russia's geopolitical interests Russia also tried to influence the results of the referendum held in late June 2016 on the Brexit. She has circulated tens of thousands of messages through fake accounts on Twitter and political ads on Facebook calling for its retirement from the union. This issue also hovered over the recent UK election, with Johnson's refusal to publish a pre-election report by intelligence agencies on the extent of Russian intervention in the referendum. Two months have passed since then, and the report in question has not yet been published. Moreover, on the eve of the referendum, many articles were published by media outlets linked to Russia, claiming that Brexit illustrates the ills of the Union and is the first sign for its disintegration. There is also a suspicion that the biggest contributor to the Brexit campaign, Arun Banks, has had contacts with Russian government officials.
The issue of Russian involvement in the referendum is significant, both because of the narrow gap in the results between those in opposition of leaving the Union (48 percent) and those in supporter (52 percent), and because Russia's efforts in this regard once again demonstrate the importance of the Kremlin in understanding the social climate in the countries intended to influence them as a tool to achieve their long-term goals.
Among Russia's neighbours and the Baltic states, there is already a fear that, following the economic implications of the Brexit on Britain, it will not be able to continue supporting them as in the past, and that its retirement from the Union puts their sovereignty at risk. Given that Britain will remain a dominant member of NATO - and in recent years has strengthened its involvement therein and promoted initiatives designed to counterbalance Russia - these fears seems to be unsubstantiated. However, in the fight on the narrative, Russia will likely leverage this event to bring about a domino effect. Apart from combating Russian disinformation efforts through the STRATCOM Task Force, the European Union must invest efforts in strengthening its image as a strong interstate framework through which Russia's expansionist aspirations in Europe can be inhibited.
Ljubljana/Ramat Gan, 25 February 2020