Is Russia crowing or cringing over the prospect of a Brexit?

British Prime Minister David Cameron conjured up the image of bogeyman Russian President Vladimir Putin crowing over the prospect of a British exit from the European Union to urge people to vote against a Brexit in the upcoming referendum on June 23.

Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt also expressed a similar sentiment, saying Putin would be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of a Brexit.

"The fact that Russia or President Putin are being used as considering factors when it comes to the Brexit referendum is a new element for us," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. He added that Russia is naturally in favour of a good relationship with the EU and each of its member states.

According to Brexit experts, Moscow has a lot to lose. "The United Kingdom leaving means the same for Russia as it does for the member states, namely uncertainty," said Andrey Sushentsov, political analyst and executive director of the Valdai Discussion Forum, which is close to the Kremlin.

The relationship between Moscow and London is paradoxical. Russian relations with other EU countries are not nearly as bad as with Britain.

The rocky history between the two countries, which includes mutual espionage and the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 with radioactive polonium in London, has prevented rapprochement.

Of the EU member states, Britain is considered the most hardline against Russia, championing sanctions after Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014.

Yet London remains the preferred destination for Russian oligarchs, who buy homes there, go on shopping sprees and send their children to elite British boarding schools.

So far Russian politicians have refrained from commenting on a Brexit, but in recent years, Russia has shown itself sympathetic to moves that put the EU and its member states on the spot. Moscow voiced support for the secession of Scotland in 2014 and the Dutch referendum, which rejected creating closer ties with Ukraine in April.

Conservative Russians hope that "the EU will break apart like the Soviet Union did," said Russian oligarch, Konstantin Malofeev in an interview with the Austrian magazine Profile.

Right-wing political parties, like the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Freedom Party of Austria (FPOe) and the Front National in France maintain contact with Russia, as does the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Politically speaking, however, Russia may not necessarily benefit from a Brexit. If Britain left, the EU would lose a member with strong military power, but that leaves Germany to dominate the EU. That would not be ideal for Russia, Sushentsov said.

And even worse is the potential for an alliance between Britain, the US and EU countries in the east, like Poland, that are critical of Russia. Poland, with a long history of oppression by Russia, is fearful of a Russian retaliation against east European members of the EU and the NATO defence alliance.

Sushentsov anticipates economic losses on both sides. The London Stock Exchange is an important trade hub for Russian equities, like the gas giant Gazprom.

If isolated from London's financial centre, Russian companies would likely turn to Asian stock markets as they "look for new safe havens for money and investments," the expert wrote. And the tide of Russians coming to "Londongrad" would also come to an end.

Although British-Russian bilateral trade is small, half of Russia's reported foreign trade is with the EU. That is why trouble in the EU would also mean trouble for Russia.

Leaving could also negatively impact two of Britain's closest partners, the Netherlands and Cyprus, both are which are also important for Russia: the Netherlands for being a partner with Russian oil and gas businesses; and Cyprus, for serving as a safe haven for capital from Russia.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49

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