The British government now realizes that it is under attack by Russia. But it has yet to admit, or seriously investigate, Russia’s role in the Brexit campaign that has plunged the United Kingdom into uncertainty and turmoil. Many Brits recognize that the Brexit campaign was built on lies, that Brexit is undesirable, and that Russia may have been involved in funding and publicizing it through social media bots and trolls. At the same time, most Brits prefer to keep a stiff upper lip and carry on, worrying that overturning Brexit may lead to greater disruption and hollowing out of the democratic process.
But this is a flawed approach to the possibility that the Brexit campaign may have been, at least in part, an enemy attack designed to destabilize British politics. At the very least, Britain needs a serious public investigation of Russia’s role in the Brexit campaign. In particular, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament owes the public a major report detailing their existing findings and knowledge of Russian involvement in Brexit, so that the public can determine whether or not they were hoodwinked as part of a Russian influence operation.
The tragedy of British politics today and for the foreseeable future is that none of these options has majority support. A plurality of 48 percent voted to remain. The 52 percent for Brexit split immediately after the vote into two minority camps supporting hard Brexit and soft Brexit. Since then, the British government has struggled to find a way to implement wrenching changes with minority support. In the end, it is certain that a majority of Brits will be disappointed.
Brexit not only destabilized Britain, but the European Union as well. A recent book, “Russian Roulette,” by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, shows that Western intelligence agencies were told since 2014 that Russia had launched a major campaign of political destabilization intended, among other things, to unravel the European Union. Russia competes with the European Union for influence across its former empire. Vladimir Putin pines for the days when the Soviet Union dominated Central and Eastern Europe. Within the European Union, Britain has often been Russia’s fiercest critic. Could Brexit have been part of a plan to counteract European Union influence?
We cannot know for sure, since British government agencies have been so reluctant to launch an investigation of similar scope to special counsel’s investigation addressing Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Yet, there is plenty of evidence in the public domain to suggest that such an investigation would not be a waste of time or taxpayer money. Nigel Farage was on the payroll of the Russian government for years, as a contracted regular commentator for Russia Today, which we know is a Russian state propaganda network.
Arron Banks, who bankrolled the Brexit campaign, has a number of suspicious Russia connections. Farage’s campaign aide George Cottrell was arrested in Chicago on money laundering charges while traveling with Farage in 2016, and was released with time served due to his cooperation with the FBI. Farage has since been denoted a “person of interest” in Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG MORE’s investigation.
The Kremlin continues to believe, with reason, that Britain will never seriously investigate its role in the Brexit campaign. Why? Because Russian money has deeply infiltrated the United Kingdom and permeated British politics. Some analysts call London the financial capital of the Russian mafia state. The Kremlin believes that greed will trump national security. Although Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats after the recent spy poisoning, so far the United Kingdom has stopped short of punishing Putin’s loyal oligarchs or putting limits on Russian money laundering.
Meanwhile, Brexit has left Britain isolated, weakened and too distracted with its own domestic turmoil until this latest attack with nerve agents to confront 14 other cases of suspected Russian killings on British soil. Britain will make no progress with Russia until it shows itself brave enough to confront the truth about foreign involvement in the Brexit campaign. As long as Russia perceives that its money can buy whatever political cover it needs for what may be the centerpiece of its destabilization campaign in Britain, Russia will act with impunity in Britain because it knows it can.
Mitchell A. Orenstein is professor and chairman of Russian and East European politics at University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His book, “Out of the Red: Building Capitalism and Democracy in Postcommunist Europe,” won the 1997 Almond Award from the American Political Science Association.