13:43 Jul. 1, 2016
Opinion article of Senior Associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center Alexander Baunov
The Kremlin is enjoying the discomfort that Brexit is causing to the European Union. But that does not mean that it wants Europe broken up. It just wants a return to old-fashioned bilateral diplomacy.
Sometimes the news that breaks is hard to believe. Oscar Wilde said that "The basis of optimism is sheer terror. We think that we are generous because we credit our neighbour with the possession of those virtues that are likely to be a benefit to us."
This was the working assumption of most of the rest of the world—as well as most of the British establishment—about last week's European Union referendum in the United Kingdom. The consensus view was that the British people would exercise their famous common sense and vote for stability and order.
Last Thursday, 52 percent of those who voted in Britain chose to defy that assumption. The Out vote was a triumph for the kind of sentiments that Russians are used to ascribing to their own public: the idea that sovereignty is more important than integration if the integration is not happening on your terms, that the status we had in the past is more desirable than the future on offer from the world's politicians, journalists, and experts. In common with Russians, the British also rejected the idea that the European Union represents the global model of the future and that the era of classic nation-states and empires is disappearing into the past.
The difference in the British case was that this was a genuinely popular decision, not the kind of one that Russians suspect is imposed from above. The British public voted against the advice of their own government, bankers, international allies, and the president of the United States. In a sense, the European Union has fallen victim to genuine British democracy.
The Russia theme hung very lightly over Britain's campaign. During the political debate, Cameron suggested that "Putin might be happy" with Brexit, while former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul called Putin a "winner" after the results came in. But the idea that "if Putin likes it, you should do the opposite" was not a consideration for the British voter—only for Russia's Central and East European neighbors and some British experts and journalists.
All the more so because Putin chose to maintain a strategic silence on the topic. In the first place, the Kremlin kept quiet because Russians do not like it when foreigners tell them what to do and was observing that principle here (although it is a principle they do not themselves observe when it comes to Ukraine). Secondly, because Putin and his team understood that anything they said about the referendum could be used against them. So the Russian president only broke his silence when the results came through and Cameron resigned, saying that the outcome was the result of the British government's "arrogance and a shallow approach to solving pivotal issues."