Some think the Russian leader has everything to gain
Britain will still remain a key player in the NATO alliance
What happens in Europe doesn’t stay in Europe.
Brexit’s aftershocks are now rumbling through the distant capitals of Moscow and Washington. And the shake-up could be bad for U.S. strategic military interests and good for Russia’s.
In the run-up to the UK’s referendum last Thursday on whether to leave the European Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied the accusation – leveled by no less than British Prime Minister David Cameron – that he would be happy to see the UK go.
But some in Russia, and many around the world, have calculated that anything that erodes a unified Western front and leads to instability in Europe would be a boon for an increasingly aggressive Moscow.
Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote in The Washington Post that, “Putin, of course, did not cause the Brexit vote, but he and his foreign policy objectives stand to gain enormously from it.”
In a Facebook post Friday, Kremlin official Boris Titov outlined how, claiming that the vote would “tear Europe from the Anglo-Saxons, that is, from the United States,” and predicting the coming of a “united Eurasia” in “about 10 years.”
What does Russia want?
It is no secret that Putin is locked in a bitter rivalry with the West, a relationship that has significantly deteriorated since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and subsequent annexation of Crimea.
Striving to project an image of Russian strength domestically and abroad, the hardline president has made a point to flex his military muscle in recent years, clashing with the national security objectives of the U.S. and its allies.
Moscow has conducted massive military drills on the borders of states in the NATO military alliance and has been accused of cyber-attacks against members of the EU political alliance, like Estonia, funding propaganda campaigns abroad, financially supporting anti-EU political parties in Europe, while conducting dangerously close aerial maneuvers to U.S. aircraft and warships.
The then-Commander of U.S. military in Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove, said in March that Moscow was actively trying to undermine European unity by intentionally attacking civilian areas in Syria and forcing an exodus of refugees to Europe. The migration of millions that has exacerbated political divisions in Europe, some of which led Britons to back quitting the EU.
In January, Putin endorsed a new security strategy that points to NATO expansion as a threat to the country.
NATO, which is led primarily by the U.S. and the UK, has positioned military equipment further east and tripled the size of the 40,000-strong NATO response force to respond to threats on its eastern flank. This month, NATO announced the deployment of four multinational battalions to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said soon after that the UK would lead one of the battalions.
Can the US and EU still work to counter Russia?
The EU and NATO currently collaborate to counter potential Russian cyber attacks and have conducted joint naval exercises.
And the EU, spurred on by the U.S., imposed strict economic sanctions on Russia in response to the intervention in Ukraine.
Now, Brexit could decrease American influence over its non-British allies in Europe.
U.S. officials believe that having the UK, one of America’s closest partners, has helped align the European Union more directly with U.S. foreign policy objectives – such as the EU participating in the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw and keeping the tough sanctions over Ukraine in place.
The U.S. and Putin have publicly said they do not expect Brexit to affect the sanctions, which include asset freezes on some Russian companies and people, as well as travel bans on certain officials. Britain, along with the nations of Eastern Europe, has been among the strongest voices to keep the sanctions in place.
But some Russian officials think otherwise.
The mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, tweeted that without “Great Britain in the EU, no one will so zealously defend the sanctions against us.”
What about NATO? How’s it different from the EU?
The EU was founded as an economic organization to create a common European market, in the decades since it has taken up additional missions in the social and security spheres – like participating in peacekeeping and anti-piracy missions.
In the early 2000s the EU adopted a “Common Security and Defense Policy” among its states. Though it pays close to 15% of EU joint military operations, the UK has resisted some of these efforts, fearing that the initiative would compete with NATO for limited defense resources.
The EU has no standing army, relying on ad hoc forces contributed by member nations to carry out civilian and military missions. Most foreign and security policies require the agreement of 28 nations in the bloc through its governing body, the European Council.
NATO, a military alliance founded after World War II to counter the Soviet Union, and the EU have 22 members in common but also several – among them the U.S. – that are not.
Despite voting to leave the EU, Britain will remain in NATO.
Some NATO officials and U.S. military commanders, however, are warning that Brexit could have “knock-on” effects on the alliance. There are concerns that if Brexit hurts the country’s GDP over the long term, the UK – second only to the U.S. in NATO contributions – will struggle to maintain its defense spending. And if Brexit boosts the momentum for Scotland to secede from the UK, Britain would lose its only nuclear submarine base.
But NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last week reiterated the UK’s central role in NATO: “I know that the United Kingdom’s position in NATO will remain unchanged. The UK will remain a strong and committed NATO Ally, and will continue to play its leading role in our alliance.”
Could Brexit actually strengthen NATO?
Some military experts definitely think so.
When asked Tuesday if Brexit would weaken NATO, Secretary of State John Kerry responded, “No, I think it will strengthen NATO.”
And NATO’s former top military commander, retired U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, wrote an op-ed in Foreign Policy Saturday arguing that, “Brexit, counter-intuitive as it might sound, will likely produce a stronger NATO.”
In the short term, Brexit “may cause NATO to be even more relied upon as it will be the only organization that includes all the major European heavyweights,” according to Fran Burwell, an expert on the EU at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told CNN.
What about intelligence? Does that get harder to gather?
The UK and U.S. have had one of the world’s closest intelligence-sharing relationships dating back to World War II, and U.S. officials believe that this allows the British to play a critical role in boosting intelligence operations in Europe.
The two countries, together with Australia, Canada and New Zealand “are tied at the hip when it comes to intelligence sharing, intelligence relationships, actually doing joint operations together,” said Mike Rogers, former chairman of the House Intelligence committee, and a CNN contributor.
Rogers added that the unique U.S.-UK intelligence relationship means that the EU would continue to cooperate with the UK on intelligence matters.
Could the EU really break up? And does that feed Russia’s military ambitions even more?
Concerns are mounting that other European nations might follow Britain’s lead, with Eurosceptic parties in France and the Netherlands celebrating last week’s result and calling for their own referendums.
Were the EU to breakup, Russia’s heft could allow it to more easily bully individual states on its periphery without the EU to collectively challenge it in the economic sphere.
And while the EU as a bloc numbers 500 million citizens and possesses a GDP that rivals America’s, separately European nations wouldn’t be able to counter-balance Russia in spheres like energy where there is intense competition and strategic interests at stake.
However, when it comes to defense, NATO appears to not be going anywhere.