The result of the United Kingdom’s referendum on its membership in the European Union was a shock, even to leaders of the “leave” campaign, exposing a lack of planning for the new British relationship with Europe. Amid the turbulence of Brexit, less attention has been paid to its geopolitical effects. But on the key issues of Russia, Syria, China and trade, Brexit will have direct and significant impacts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s purported desire for Britain to leave the EU was a debating point during the referendum campaign. While Putin’s public statements on the outcome suggest mild approval, private sources close to the Kremlin have said that there is “extra-jubilation” among Russia’s leadership. The U.K. had played a leading role in pushing the EU toward a hawkish line on sanctions against Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. In the short term, there is unlikely to be any change, but the continuation of sanctions had already been called into question. Italy recently delayed their extension; German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called for them to be phased out; and France’s parliament passed a nonbinding resolution to lift sanctions in April.
Several EU members, including Sweden, Poland and the Baltic states, want to maintain a tough line with Moscow, but the balance of opinion will swing to Russia’s advantage with the U.K. out of the picture. With Russia aware of the increased prospect of sanctions being lifted, its incentive to withdraw support for separatist forces in Ukraine and implement the Minsk agreements has diminished. After all, Putin’s popularity at home has not been affected by Russia’s economic deterioration since 2014, and Moscow will likely focus on holding out until the sanctions regime collapses.