Now the evidence for this may have escaped you. But if a majority of voters decide on Thursday that the UK should leave the EU (and you think that is a bad idea), you know who and what to blame. No, not the persuasive powers of Johnson, Farage and Gove, nor the posters and front pages claiming a migrant invasion of our sceptr’d isle, but that well-known master-strategist, striver after world domination and latter-day tsar, Vladimir Putin.
Yes, it will be all the Russian president’s fault, with a little help from Isis. These are the bogeymen that leading Remain campaigners – first among them the foreign secretary Philip Hammond – have invoked as cheerleaders for Brexit. With friends like these, they argue, the Leave campaign is fatally tainted. How could any right-minded person even consider voting Leave, when you know that it is what Putin and his Kremlin pals so crave.
That neither Putin nor any member of his immediate circle has ever even hinted at a stance on the UK referendum, let alone any sympathy for Brexit, is neither here nor there. Just as surely as the Russian leader “probably” ordered the radiation murder of the former agent, Alexander Litvinenko, just as surely as he plotted to help Ukrainian rebels down a Malaysian civilian airliner two years ago, so he has been rubbing his hands for months in anticipation of Brexit.
The detail that Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, in the past voiced (some qualified) admiration for Putin is proof enough of guilt in “joint enterprise”. The same applies to the boast of “that clown” Donald Trump that he could do business with Putin. Now go away, so the argument runs, and vote to stay in the EU.
Why the Remain campaign concluded that Putin obviously favoured Brexit is a mystery to me. If, as I suspect, it derives chiefly from Russia-EU rivalry over Ukraine and the assumption that Putin will support anything that might weaken the EU, then it simply exposes the depth of misunderstanding that bedevils the UK’s relations with Russia in general and the misreadings that are endemic in the Foreign Office in particular.
Wanting to clip the wings of the EU – a powerful grouping, in official Russian judgements – even to inspire a little angst in the “new” EU and Nato states, is one thing. Supporting, even tacitly, a departure that could encourage other exits and precipitate the break-up of the whole European Union project is something else. Russia’s priority under Putin, as under Boris Yeltsin before him, is its own security and stability on its borders. This is why it (over-) reacted as it did to unrest in Ukraine. This is why Russia would certainly not want the UK to leave the EU.
Such a fundamental misunderstanding, however, is part and parcel of the mystique the UK more than almost anyone has spun around Putin. And with his poker-face and ascetic manner, he is so easy to blame. After all, he authorised the restoration of the old Soviet-era national anthem, didn’t he, in the hope that it would remind friends and enemies alike of Russia’s Soviet-era power. Grassroots pressure? Lobbying from sports organisations and others? Come off it, everyone knows that Putin is omnipotent; one flick of his finger and the deed is done.
Doping in Russian athletics is not just doping, but “state-sponsored doping”, and, as such, something Putin had to be complicit in. At Euro 2016, Russia’s football thugs were not just thugs, but “highly trained” and in “uniform”. What is more, “Whitehall sources” hinted that they had to be under Kremlin control, another tool in the dastardly armoury of “hybrid warfare”. This is as absurd as suggesting that England’s thugs were masterminded from Downing Street. Not even Putin has suggested that.
For years, the West has exaggerated Putin’s power and authority, by imposing a tsar analogy that does not fit and wrongly characterising Russia’s dysfunctional state as a dictatorship. But in puffing him up as such a threat, we serve his ends more than we serve ours.
There is a coda to the Remainers’ miscasting of Putin as Brexiteer-in-chief. Last weekend, after an international economics conference in St Petersburg, which was attended – boycotts notwithstanding – by the president of the European Commission, the Italian prime minister and others – Putin was asked directly about Brexit. Confirming that he and his ministers had said nothing because – as he rightly remarked, it was none of their business – he made two points. First, he denied that Brexit would be in Russia’s interests. Second, he questioned why on earth David Cameron had called a referendum that was so clearly against his own interests, speculating that it was perhaps a conspiracy to blackmail the EU.
Putin’s answer suggests genuine bafflement in Moscow about why the UK’s referendum was called and his explanation serves to illustrate just how much misunderstanding there is on both sides. What should now be clear, however, is that Putin, contrary to so many assumptions, is not backing Brexit. And when the foreign secretary mentioned foreign enemies of Remain at the weekend, it was striking that he named only Isis. Putin had strangely dropped off his list.
This is not to say that no blame attaches to Putin for anything. The annexation of Crimea, whatever the Kremlin’s motives, was an illegal act, for which Russia is paying with the de facto “loss” of Ukraine. More generally, Putin can be accused of permitting, if not creating, a climate in which venality can flourish, sections of the media are curbed, and the law remains beholden to the state. But to blame Putin for a stance he has not taken and for actions in which he can have had no part risks clouding the charges that are justified and discrediting his foreign critics more than it does him.
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