As referendum day approached, David Cameron tried to put an even older British fear at the heart of debate, when he claimed that the UK would be ill-equipped outside the EU to deal with threats from “a newly belligerent Russia”. The ‘leave’ campaign’s figurehead, Boris Johnson, was subsequently lambasted as a ‘Putin apologist’, when he suggested that Brussels’ foreign policy helped create conflict in the Ukraine.
The ‘remain’ camp’s Russian strategy was never likely to win prizes for originality. The tactic of demonising Russia has been used to shape policy and popular opinion in Britain since at least the 19th century. British Russophobia merely enjoyed a revival after the Russian economy recovered and the Kremlin reasserted its influence on world affairs, under Vladimir Putin.
There are some fairly alarming parallels between the current hostile attitude toward Moscow and the lead-up to the Crimean War. Orlando Figes makes them glaringly obvious in his lively history of the conflict, Crimea, which describes how Russophobe journalists and politicians applied pressure on Britain to confront Russia. They ascribed the darkest of motives to every Russian policy and constructed complicated conspiracy theories around the Tsarist government’s intentions.
It’s an attitude familiar to anyone who follows the war fantasies of the journalist Edward Lucas or the paranoid exploits of Labour’s Chris Bryant, who harassed fellow MP, Mike Hancock, for employing a Russian in his Westminster office. It’s also evident in bizarre recent claims that Russian football hooligans at Euro 2016 were waging ‘hybrid warfare’ at the Kremlin’s command and countless other stories in the UK media. Saturday’s London Times, for example, led with an article describing Russian language programmes at UK universities as part of a “secret propaganda assault” by Putin.
Attempts to analyse seriously the motives behind Russia’s foreign policies, rather than demonise the country and its leaders, are rare. So it wasn’t surprising when the remain campaign dusted off anti-Russian tropes to claim that Britain must stay in the EU because of the perceived threat from Putin. The counter-argument, that EU expansion and its confrontational policies in eastern Europe actually fuelled Kremlin hostility, was not examined properly.
Yet there is some evidence from across Europe that the public has anxieties about its decision-makers taking an aggressive approach with Russia. The Dutch referendum result, which rejected by a resounding margin an EU ‘association treaty’ with the Ukraine, was at least in part a rebuttal of Brussels’ attempts to craft a shared foreign policy. The Lisbon Treaty imposed upon member states a tangle of obligations, which effectively merged the Union’s security policies with those of NATO.
The narrative that Russia is a dangerous, expansionist power, intent upon rebuilding the Soviet Empire, rests on clichéd descriptions of Vladimir Putin, who, in the western imagination, is a dastardly mixture of mastermind and madman, and some fairly transparent misreading of recent history. For instance, the 2008 conflict in Georgia, is portrayed repeatedly as a result of Russian aggression, despite clear evidence that it was caused by former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to attack South Ossetia, an interpretation endorsed by the EU’s own report into the war.
A complicated civil war in the Ukraine is simply an outcome of Russian belligerence, in most western accounts. Media stubbornly refuse to examine more deeply the extraordinary nature of events on Russia’s doorstep, where a coup in Kiev unseated a democratically elected government, empowered nationalist militia and terrified Russian speakers and Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine. Still less attention has been paid to the destabilising influence exerted by the EU and the US, who encouraged the Maidan demonstrations openly and interfered in the formation of the new regime.
Annexing Crimea and becoming embroiled in civil war in Donbas were not Putin’s finest moments, but these actions suggest a leader prepared to act rationally and pre-emptively when he feels Russia’s national interests are threatened, rather than a power-crazed invader. The idea of an aggressive, imperialist Russia, trying to regather lost territory, never withstood serious scrutiny. Consistently, Putin’s most controversial gambits in foreign policy have been defensive in motivation and address perceived threats either to side-line Russia on the international stage or to damage its interests.
It’s easier for political leaders to scare voters into supporting policies, rather than win them over with persuasive arguments. In the UK, US and other countries, Russia has often been used as a convenient ‘bogeyman’, proverbially deceptive and devious, which can be abused and accused, without actually posing a significant threat to the West. Then there are the Russophobes with a harder edge, who believe the clichés, or profit from them, and are therefore devoted to alerting people to the Russian menace. These attitudes are then mirrored in Russia, where western hostility is harnessed and reflected right back at the US and EU, for competing political purposes.
It’s a dangerous process, which damages relationships and allows mutual misunderstandings to flourish. The outcome is that discourse around Russia and the West has degenerated to the point where predictions of an actual shooting war are entertained seriously.
In such an atmosphere the ‘remain’ campaign’s arguments, that Britain had to stay in the EU to counter Russia, were not only absurd, but also deeply irresponsible. They were grounded in old-fashioned Russophobe prejudices and deliberate distortions of recent history. Actually, the conflicts in the Ukraine and Georgia showed the danger of the EU entangling its members in a mesh of opaque foreign policy obligations and the merits of the UK determining its own relationships with the rest of the world.