21/02/2019 06:00 GMT | Updated 21/02/2019 06:00 GMT

We Can't Blame Putin For Brexit, But Leaving The EU Suits His War On The West

Central to Putin's political war is waging a campaign to divide, distract and demoralise us, and Brexit ticks every box


There is now a new word in Russian: brekzit. It means to say your goodbyes, but never actually to leave. Russian is a language especially prone to borrowing from other tongues (Vauxhall provided their word for a railway station: vokzal) but even so it might be surprising how far Russians have been thinking and talking about Brexit.

Although foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has denied that it is “rubbing its hands together and gloating”, the Kremlin has been enthusiastic from the start. There is no evidence that Putin has any further territorial ambitions – Russia is not in a position to expand further, let alone take on Nato – but he has embarked on a campaign to, shall we say, Make Russia Great Again.

He wants to be able to assert Russian influence over his neighbours, and to be able to ignore inconvenient details such as international law. To that end, he does not have to defeat the West, but he does have to neutralise it.

Central to the political war he is waging is a campaign to divide, distract and demoralise us, and Brexit ticks every box. It is not just dividing the British (possibly even disuniting the UK, depending on what happens to Northern Ireland and ultimately Scotland) but also Europe. It is also a massive distraction, especially in London, where it becomes difficult to get policy-makers to think of anything but Brexit.

Either way, the outcome is likely to be demoralising, and not just for Britain. Any Brexit will also have an economic impact on other European countries, and this tends to worsen public dissatisfaction.

So there is no doubt that the Russian government is happy with Brexit, but did it encourage it? As I discovered when writing my book We Need To Talk About Putin, that is the kind of question that is easy to ask, but complex properly to answer.

Yes, of course Russia’s foreign propaganda outlets and covert online troll-farms encouraged Brexit.

Yes, Russian ambassador Alexander Yakovenko assiduously wooed Leave.EU backer Arron Banks.

Yes, according to a security source of mine, Russian spies were busily trying to collect information (which might have meant compromising dirt) on key players backing and opposing Brexit.

But even setting aside whether any of this actually made a difference, does this mean Putin himself was behind a campaign to back Brexit? That’s not clear.

This is because, for all his image as some kind of brooding mastermind, a Bond villain lacking only a white cat on his lap (he’s more a dog man), Putin has actually developed a very hands-off, even lazy way of running his empire.

In some cases he and his presidential administration – in practice, the most powerful institution in today’s Russia – initiate or approve operations, whether the annexation of Crimea in 2014 or, odds are, the attempted Salisbury poisoning.

More often, though, he simply lets it be known what kinds of things he’d like to see happen, usually in broad terms, and people scurry to try and turn hints and vague aspirations into policy. After all, these “political entrepreneurs” know that if they succeed, then the Kremlin will reward them.

And if they fail? Well, the Kremlin can deny any knowledge of their ploys and has lost nothing.

In short, Putin has weaponised the imaginations and ambitions of all kinds of Russians, from ambassadors and spy chiefs, to journalists and businesspeople. Did Putin tell anyone to encourage Banks? Unlikely. Was the TV channel RT instructed to talk about “the latest scare tactics to keep Britain in the EU”? Almost certainly not. Did the Kremlin directly task the spies to dig into the lives of key players in the Brexit drama? Maybe, but it didn’t have to.

This is the challenge of dealing with Putin’s Russia. Instead of a single master plan, we face a plethora of gambits, ruses, plots and adventures, most of which are pointless, or fail. But some will succeed – and even when they don’t work, they contribute to the steady erosion in our confidence that we can be sure what is true and what is false, what is enemy action, and what is just an expression of genuine dissent at home.

Nonetheless, as Brexit is being presented to Russians as a cautionary tale about the feckless divisiveness of the West, as the UK continues to be consumed by the saga, and as fears grow that this will affect even NATO and European security, there can be little doubt that Putin will be very satisfied with the outcome, and presumably hoping that some of his people played some role in its unfolding.

Mark Galeotti is an author on Russia and security affiairs, and senior non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague. His latest book, ‘We Need To Talk About Putin’, is published by Ebury Press