Divide and Conquer?

Why Putin Is Meddling in Britain’s Brexit Vote

The Kremlin claims it’s neutral as Britain prepares to vote on whether to leave the European Union, but Russia’s own propaganda says otherwise.

06.08.16 5:00 AM ET

LONDON — The only big-name pols on earth who think Britain should leave the European Union are Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Vladimir Putin.

Or so the campaign for Britain to remain in the EU keeps telling us.

Trump is open about his support for the British exit, or Brexit, and will be in Britain on the day of the referendum results. French hardliner Le Pen is keen to campaign in Britain—even though the “leave” camp has publicly demanded she stay away.

The Kremlin, on the other hand, totally denies that Putin wants Britain to quit the 28-member economic and political union. Officials insist that the Russian president remains entirely neutral. He has offered no public statement on the June 23 referendum and his colleagues have been uncharacteristically quiet.

That doesn’t mean Putin isn’t doing everything he can to help force Britain out—he’s just a lot smarter than Trump and Le Pen.

Putin knows British voters don’t want to be told what to do by a Russian autocrat (any more than they are likely to take instruction from a gaudy New York property tycoon or a truculent French xenophobe).

Putin also has something Trump and Le Pen only dream about: real power and a state apparatus to command. Western diplomats and security officials are increasingly aware that Putin is willing and able to use one of the world’s most expansive intelligence and propaganda operations to try and destabilize the European Union.

“It’s asymmetrical warfare—this is KGB stuff—where you’re carefully funneling money into propaganda to nudge people,” said Charles Crawford, a former British diplomat who worked in Moscow before he was appointed British ambassador to Sarajevo, Belgrade, and then Warsaw.

Britain voting to leave would be the biggest jolt to the union that has been taking shape, and growing—in various guises—ever since Europe began to emerge from the rubble of World War II. Britain, after some reluctance, joined back in 1973.

When this year’s referendum was announced, pollsters predicted that there would be a majority in favor of staying in the union, but recent polls suggest the race is too close to call.

“The Kremlin is actively trying to influence things; the question is how best to do that because you don’t want to do that in a way that’s obvious because it backfires,” Crawford explained to The Daily Beast.

Relations between London and Moscow are already at their lowest ebb since the Cold War, exacerbated by the findings of an official inquiry earlier this year that émigré Alexander Litvinenko had likely been assassinated with radioactive poison on the orders of the Kremlin.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Philip Hammond, the Conservative foreign secretary, have both accused Putin of advocating for Britain to leave the EU, which seemed to infuriate Russia’s embassy in London.

“Russia is being dragged into the domestic debate on Brexit,” a spokesman said. “As a matter of fact, our Government doesn’t have an opinion on Britain’s place in the EU.”

As part of the British Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the appalling relations with Russia, five Members of Parliament travelled to Moscow last month for meetings with politicians in the Duma and officials at the foreign ministry.

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Three of those MPs told The Daily Beast that Russian officials had expressed their frustration at being publicly linked to the Brexit campaign.

“The regime and Putin in particular—whilst they’ve not put forward an official line, because obviously that might be counter-productive—would be very pleased if Britain exited the European Union,” said Mark Hendrick, a Labour member of the parliamentary committee, who wants Britain to remain in the EU.

Hendrick said it was clear from their meetings in Moscow with Russian officials, business leaders, academics, experts, and U.S. Ambassador John F. Tefft that Putin prefers the one-on-one brinksmanship of bilateral relations rather than dealing with a united entity like the EU.

“They prefer a U.K. separate from the European Union and to see the European Union break up. The fact that the Poles, the Czechs, and the Slovaks, and all these others that were in the Warsaw Pact, are in the EU as well as NATO is not a trend they want to see continue,” he said.

The “leave” campaign has ridiculed suggestions that Putin is secretly helping them to win, and Crispin Blunt, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who is campaigning for Britain to quit, said the Russian officials had done nothing to endorse Brexit during their trip.

While it is true that Russian state officials have carefully avoided any public comment, there is a clear pattern of agitation for withdrawal from the EU on Russia’s state-owned, English-language news outlets Russia Today, a television network, and Sputnik, a news site.

Analysis of recent news stories shows a clear bias towards quoting anti-EU campaigners in articles that claim to show balance. One news story quotes extreme right-wing Polish politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who says Britain would be right to leave the EU. (He also offers his support for Trump because “Clinton is supported by the Jews.”)

The propaganda is even more blatant among the recent op-eds on RT and Sputnik. Among them are articles claiming that the EU was the creation of the CIA and two RT pieces decrying EU “brainwashing.” The leader of Britain’s U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), who was instrumental in forcing Cameron into calling the EU referendum, is also a regular guest on RT.

“One of the main lines in Russian propaganda is that Europe is in decay, in chaos, that it is divided, becoming increasingly irrelevant, and obviously a decision by the British to exit the Union would feed that line of argument enormously,” said Joerg Forbrig, from the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Along with Russia’s official news outlets, secretive troll factories are pumping out huge quantities of propaganda. Low-paid workers create thousands of pro-Kremlin blogs, social media posts, and comments on local and Western news outlets. Diplomats believe Brexit is one of the latest topics of the trolls’ propaganda machine.

Sometimes Russian officials get involved directly. As Germany was seething with racial tension earlier this year amid the struggle to cope with an influx of immigrants, the Russian embassy in London tweeted: “German government threw their country under feet of migrants like a rug, now try wipe their crimes under carpet.”

Beyond propaganda, Russia is also known to intervene more directly in Western politics. “I do think that the Kremlin has been trying to reach out to the leave campaign. There may well be support but it will be very hard to find out about this because they will be extremely discrete,” Forbrig told The Daily Beast. “We do know that the Kremlin is also materially supporting other actors that have potential to undermine European unity, and the European Union.”

For example, cash and support was given to far right media outlets in the Western Europe. Voice of Russia, a state radio station that was folded into Sputnik in 2014, gave $470,000 to a French web TV channel founded by a former Front National advisor. The state-owned outlet also partnered with the Italian Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, which was founded by the far-right Lega Nord.

Radical right-wingers campaigning for Britain to leave the EU were also invited to events hosted by Russia. Nick Griffin, the former leader of the racist British National Party, and Jim Dowson, the founder of Britain First—a far-right street party, attended a conference of neo-Nazis in Saint Petersburg last year.

One of the most blatant Russian interventions in the Eurosceptic fringe of Western politics has been seen in France. The Front National received a $10 million loan from the Kremlin-linked First Czech Russian Bank in late 2014, and the party’s leader Marine Le Pen reportedly has made several trips to Moscow, meeting with Putin in secret. Members of the European Parliament from her faction and a key adviser, Emmanuel Leroy, have made several visits to the occupied city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, and pledged their support for the Russian-backed separatist cause.

Of course, she is also an outspoken supporter of Britain’s campaign to leave the EU. She said a vote for Brexit would “prove it’s possible to live outside the EU. You’re either free or you aren’t.”

Britain’s referendum at the end of this month is “a key moment in European history,” she said.

Vladimir Putin is counting on it.