by Con Coughlin
Britain outside the EU will be just as vigorous in opposing further acts of Russian aggression as it has been as a member of the EU.
- Even if Britain does vote to leave the European Union, it will still work with the EU, albeit as a separate diplomatic entity rather than having its voice submerged by the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy.
- Britain outside the EU will be just as vigorous in opposing further acts of Russian aggression as it has been as a member of the EU.
- NATO, rather than the EU, is the most important organization for keeping Moscow in its place.
For all his claims to the contrary, there can be little doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be taking a keen interest in the outcome of Britain's historic referendum on its membership of the European Union on Thursday.
The Kremlin's official line is that Moscow has no interest in whether the British people decide to leave or remain a member of the 28-state economic and political union. And in his first public comment on the vote last weekend. Mr Putin said the decision was "the business of the people of the UK," even though he could not help having a gratuitous swipe at British Prime Minister David Cameron, accusing him of trying to "blackmail Europe" by calling the vote.
But even though the Kremlin's official position is that it is observing a strict neutrality on the outcome, the reality is that there is nothing that would please Mr Putin more than a British vote in favour of Brexit.
Ever since he embarked on his aggressive military campaign to restore Russia to its former Soviet glory, Mr Putin has made no secret of his hostility to the EU. He deeply resents the EU's successful integration of former Soviet satellite states such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which he still regards as falling within Moscow's traditional sphere of influence.
Indeed, it was the EU's attempts to build a strategic partnership with Ukraine, another former Soviet satellite, that prompted Mr Putin's illegal annexation of Crimea two years ago, as well as his continuing military intervention in eastern Ukraine. The Baltic States, which also celebrated their freedom from Soviet control when the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, have also been subjected to menacing intimidation by Russian forces.
Mr Putin believes that, if Britain leaves the EU, then the alliance will be less robust in confronting Moscow over its aggressive posture in Central Europe and the Baltics. Moscow is still subject to punitive sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, which, together with the collapse in the global price of oil, have inflicted significant damage on the Russian economy.
But while the sanctions have helped to persuade Mr Putin to rein in his military adventurism in Europe, the sanctions are not universally popular among all EU member states. In particular, Germany and Italy, which have close trading ties with Moscow, have been lukewarm about maintaining the sanctions. It is mainly due to Britain's hardline stance on the subject that EU policymakers have managed to summon the diplomatic backbone to keep the sanctions in place.
Britain's strained relationship with Moscow dates back to the 2006 murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium during a meeting with Russian intelligence agents at a London hotel.
The British military has also taken a lead role in NATO's robust response to Russian sabre-rattling in Central Europe, and has deployed a heavy-armoured battle group to the Polish border and fighter jets in the Balkans to deter further acts of Russian aggression.
But Mr Putin is badly mistaken if he believes that a British "leave" vote will result in Europe taking a less robust approach to Russian aggression. For a start, even if Britain does vote to leave the EU, it will still work with the EU, albeit as a separate diplomatic entity rather than having its voice submerged by the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy. And Britain outside the EU will be just as vigorous in opposing further acts of Russian aggression as it has been as a member of the EU.
Furthermore, NATO, rather than the EU, is the most important organization for keeping Moscow in its place. Apart from France, the only other European country with serious military clout is Britain, and Britain will continue to be a cornerstone of the transatlantic alliance, irrespective of how it votes in Thursday's EU referendum.
Con Coughlin is Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor of the London Telegraph and author of Churchill's First War (St Martin's Press).
Follow Middle East and Terrorism on Twitter
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.