Russia finds itself in a bold new opportunity-filled Europe after an eventful week for Europe. The Brexit vote on June 23rd and the fateful attack on Istanbul on June 28th both have important political ramifications for Russia, and they will certainly change the calculus in Europe and the Middle East.
Brexit: Russia 1, Europe 0
I honestly did not think that British voters would opt to leave the European Union, but it seems as if the anti-globalisation sentiment is more serious than Trump’s campaign would indicate. By a slim margin voters chose to have Britain leave the E.U. While the details of the divorce will take a brief while to sort out the message was absolutely clear. Britain is out! The economic fallout from the Brexit seems to have resolved itself but the situation is anything but stable. Britain’s departure is a sign of the times: nativism is on the rise. What other countries might leave or attempt to leave next?
This is a significant blow to the credibility of the E.U., and it can also be construed as a defeat for the United States. The U.S. openly enjoys a “Special Relationship” with its former colonial overlord. British and American foreign policy generally complement one another, enabling the U.S. to indirectly impact E.U. policy. Without the British connection, the U.S. will be able to exert less influence on Europe. Britain and America are still tied to much of Europe through NATO however, so it would be foolish to think of the U.S. as out of the picture.
Regardless of what alliances remain, a major anti-Russian voice has left the E.U. Some major nations in the E.U., such as France, have been somewhat sympathetic to Russia, and it is possible that detente may take place. The European Union is still resentful of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, and they even reaffirmed the sanctions against Russia about a week after the Brexit vote, but the future is filled with possibilities! With economic strains between Britain and the E.U. emerging, some European countries may find it easier to turn to Russia. Personally I do not believe that sanctions will survive much longer. Russia and its territorial claims to Crimea would greatly benefit from a normalization in relations.
It is too early to say whether or not the E.U. will disintegrate. I think that the E.U. can function fine without Britain. But Russia can certainly apply increased diplomatic pressure to the most vulnerable nations to encourage them to depart. Successful efforts at splintering the E.U. would possibly have ramifications for NATO’s cohesion as well, and breaking apart the Western monolith would be a huge boon to Russian power.
Turkey: The Enemy of my Enemy…
Months ago Turkey shot down a Russian plane in Syria that had violated Turkish airspace. This week Turkish PM Erdogan apologized to Russia over these events. Diplomatic relations have resumed, and there is talk of Russian-Turkish cooperation.
Unfortunately the bridge of renewed relations was built out of tragedy. A devastating attack on the Ataturk airport in Istanbul has strengthened Turkey’s resolve to combat terrorism. It doesn’t matter who might have perpetuated the attack: terrorism must go. International incidents and politics must be set aside in the name of survival. Russian foreign minister Lavrov has used this argument before in numerous instances, and now Russia is making good on its promise by setting aside any bad blood over losing a plane and engaging with Turkey. While Brexit only leaves room for Russia to act, the events in Turkey have led to a direct renewal of Russian involvement in the region.
Could the terrorist attack have been prevented? This is always a major concern after an attack. Seeing that the terrorists in question are from Russia (various news reports label them as either Chechen or Dagestani), I think the case could be made that had Russian-Turkish relations never been severed it is possible that the attack might have been stopped. There are no guarantees of course, but information sharing is often the most effective counter-terror tool. Cooperation between Turkey and Russia would have enabled greater information sharing, thereby enhancing the security of Russia, Turkey, and beyond.
A lack of information sharing is not just a Russia-Turkey problem, it is also very much a Russia-NATO problem. The operations of the NATO-Russia Council were unilaterally suspended by the latter party in protest of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The NRC aimed to enhance cohesion and information sharing for the goal of combating terrorism and crime. The NRC’s suspension shows that the West prioritizes politics over security. There is more talk of cooperation between Russia and America in the fight against terror, but talk is cheap. Hopefully though the major players will understand this and firmly commit to cooperate. In the interim, I welcome any cooperation between Russia and the individual members of NATO.
Recent Russian international affairs have been mercurial and capricious, with constant reversals and changes. This past week has shown that Russia’s approach to Europe and the Middle East will still be wrought with upheaval. Luckily for Russia, Putin is a pragmatist extraordinaire. When fate offers its hand, Russia takes it. It is important to remember that these events are not independent of one another. Together, they may compound to greatly enhance Russia’s fortunes. Russian-Turkish detente grants Russia some leverage against NATO, while Brexit may just leave the E.U. hamstrung. As usual, Russia is far from being cornered.