Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
London may still take a firm stand on Russia after an EU exit. But Moscow can exploit divisions exposed by the vote.
A 'Vote Leave' sign on the side of a building in Charing on 16 June 2016. Photo by Getty Images.A 'Vote Leave' sign on the side of a building in Charing on 16 June 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

Among the many assessments of the fallout from last week’s Brexit referendum, one strong theme is the notion that without Britain, the Continent and its alliances would be left weaker and less able to face down an assertive Russia. The worst of these predictions assume that non-membership in the European Union precludes any security cooperation with it at all, which is unlikely even in the messiest of divorces. But the referendum has revealed another very real vulnerability, one that lies within the heart of the United Kingdom, and one that Russian President Vladimir Putin would only be too happy to exploit.

Without the UK’s direct input, as a security institution the EU would be marginally less effective. A powerful voice in Brussels backing action against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine would be lost. There would be one fewer member to oppose the EU’s vanity project of a parallel armed force, whose tasks would overlap with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

But Brexit would also open up the UK to taking firmer action alone. As an EU member, the UK has been prevented from unilaterally imposing tougher sanctions on Moscow in line with the US and Canada. And should it need allies beyond NATO, there are always coalitions of the willing, such as its 'alliance of common interests' project with the Nordic and Baltic countries, all of which share a common challenge from Russia.

As for NATO, the adverse consequences of Brexit won’t be immediate. When its members meet next week in Warsaw, the biggest threat Brexit will pose is overshadowing the debate and distracting from the essential focus on Russia. But as Admiral Jim Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander for Europe, has suggested, one welcome consequence could be a greater long-term British focus on the alliance, without the distraction of the EU.

Domestically, an unexpected benefit of the referendum has been the spectacular implosion of the Labour Party. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and his former shadow defence secretary, Emily Thornberry, may not have been explicitly pro-Putin, but their pro-welfare and anti-defence policies would certainly have been to the Russian president’s taste. Corbyn’s departure would leave the UK a safer place.

The more insidious threat from Brexit would come from within the UK itself. The deep internal divisions that have been revealed by the vote—of income, education, England against Scotland, town against countryside—aren’t new. They’ve simply been brought into greater relief by the unusual opportunity for a truly democratic poll, where all votes have equal weight.

And the prospect of another independence vote for Scotland raises all the same defence and security problems as it did in 2014, from distribution of defence spending, widely predicted to shrink after Brexit, to where Britain’s nuclear submarines should be based. Commonsense solutions could be hoped for but are by no means guaranteed.

The comments and reportage of London-based politicians and media since the vote have only highlighted further the division between them and the rest of England. Their incomprehension of 'how this could have happened' demonstrates the width of that gap.

Commentary in mainstream and social media now is saturated with disdain for anyone who doesn’t embrace the EU as an engine for globalization, immigration and transformation. This fails to recognize the perception of the EU among broad sections of England as an outside force that makes life worse, not better. And it will only deepen the realization among rural voters of the extent to which they have been ignored and marginalized by increasingly distant urban elites.

In blaming the 'arrogance' of the UK’s leadership as a root cause for the Brexit vote, Putin appears more in tune with the sentiments of many rural English voters than the country’s own elites. That’s an alarming prospect for those who have so far seen Russian influence in terms of growing links with disaffected voters only on the far left and the far right.

Exploiting divisions in target societies to undermine them is a key part of what some in the West now call Russia’s 'hybrid warfare'. The challenge from Moscow is back in the spotlight following Russia’s return to military action abroad in Ukraine and Syria, and its direct and indirect threats to its European neighbors. But the methods of subverting and destabilizing its adversaries from within—either before or instead of more overt and aggressive action—date back to Soviet times, and have just been enhanced and updated in the age of the internet and social media.

During the referendum campaign, other than a bias toward pro-Leave spokesmen, Russia’s propaganda machine was relatively quiescent. But after the vote, the UK’s social and national schisms are now exposed to view and ready to be leveraged to weaken British opposition to Moscow.

Russia has demonstrated time and again that it prefers to tackle countries on a bilateral basis rather than through blocs. Following Brexit, at least the UK that Putin would face could be firmer in defence than the EU it will have left. But any further fragmentation of the UK, politically or socially, would only make Putin’s divide-and-conquer task easier. As the post-referendum arguments and recriminations continue, the integrity of the UK itself presents at least as big an opportunity for Moscow as the possibility of British departure from the EU.

This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal.

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