Andrew Foxall, The New York Times, 13.07.2016
Britain’s referendum decision last month to leave the European Union has plunged Europe into crisis. There will be institutional and political upheaval for years to come while the terms of Britain’s knotty disentanglement are worked out. The ability of both Britain and the European Union to maintain their international influence and remain major forces on the world stage is in doubt, with potentially dire consequences for Continental order.
It is a stark situation. One person who understands this very well is Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin.
Mr. Putin has spent the past 16 years trying to destabilize the West. He has pursued a foreign policy designed to intimidate Russia’s near neighbors, undermine Euro-Atlantic unity and challenge the post-Cold War international order. Yet each of Mr. Putin’s attempts to divide the European Union has failed. It stood united through all of Russia’s economic embargoes, financial subversions, energy cutoffs and military interventions.
Such unity is no more. When 17.4 million Britons voted to leave the European Union on June 23, they did in a day what Mr. Putin could not achieve in over a decade and a half.
The European Union has lost one of the strongest supporters of its sanctions against Russia for the war Mr. Putin is waging in Ukraine. This will tip the balance of power in favor of those member states, including Cyprus and Slovenia, that are prepared to lift sanctions tied to compliance with the commitments Russia made in the Minsk II agreement, the Ukraine peace accord signed in February 2015. Russia has, over the past year, promoted bilateral relations with those it sees as sympathetic to Moscow — like Greece, Austria and Hungary — and it will continue to do so.
Although Minsk sanctions were recently rolled over for another six months, there is fatigue in Brussels. The Slovak newspaper Dennik N reported in February that the country’s prime minister, Robert Fico, had said of the sanctions: “The sooner they are removed, the better.” Last month, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, argued that they “are not an end in themselves” and should lapse. When they do lapse, the European Union will have conceded Russia’s right to invade or intervene in whatever territory it wants. Moscow’s authoritarianism will have defeated Brussels’ liberal democracy.
There are also fears of a Brexit “domino effect” in Europe. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, said last month that “everything must be done” to prevent other countries from leaving the European Union. Mr. Putin knows this, which is why he devotes considerable effort to cultivating and funding euroskeptic groups across the Continent.
France’s far-right National Front party received an $11.7 million loan from a Russian bank in 2014; the Kremlin has also nurtured ties with extreme-right and nationalist parties like Jobbik of Hungary, the People’s Party of Slovakia and Ataka of Bulgaria. The United States is so concerned over Moscow’s determination to exploit European disunity that in January, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, began a review of Russia’s clandestine funding of European parties.
The future of Britain is at stake: In both Scotland and Northern Ireland, major political parties (the Scottish National Party and Sinn Fein, respectively) are poised to demand further referendums of their populations on whether to leave the United Kingdom. If its systematically one-sided coverage of Brexit is anything to go by, RT — Mr. Putin’s mouthpiece English-language television channel — will focus heavily on any future “out” campaign in Scotland or the North of Ireland.
In the Netherlands, France and Italy, anti-European and, in some cases, anti-democratic politicians are questioning their countries’ membership in the European Union. Geert Wilders, the right-wing Dutch politician, described Brexit as “a fantastic result” and predicted that “the Netherlands will be next.” Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, has called for French citizens to have the right to choose. Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League party, tweeted, “Now it’s our turn.”
The European Union may be a hesitant foreign policy actor, but it is a key part of the West’s military and security architecture. After Brexit, the union has lost not only one of its most capable members, but also one of its two nuclear powers and one of its two seats at the United Nations Security Council. When Britain leaves Europe, the union also bids goodbye to its biggest military spender and one of its most capable security and intelligence services. NATO will continue to provide a framework of collective defense, but Brussels has lost its most enduring link to Washington. With it, the United States has lost its most dependable voice inside the European Union.
Mr. Putin checked the European Union’s expansion when he invaded Ukraine in 2014. The Continent’s security order is now in a perilous plight: If Mr. Putin senses weakness, he will be tempted into further aggression. The momentum is on his side. Over recent years, he has restored autocratic rule in Russia, halted NATO’s eastern expansion, extended Russia’s influence over large parts of the former Soviet Union by creating the Eurasian Economic Union, and expanded Russia’s influence in the Middle East. His repressive style of government inspires European admirers: Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has called for his country to abandon liberal democracy and become an “illiberal state” like Russia.
Britain has made its choice. Brexit has ushered in a fateful moment in European history. The progress toward a Europe whole and free has stalled. The European Union is weaker, Russia is stronger, and Mr. Putin surely knows it.