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Despite Russia's somber facade, glimpses of joy over EU referendum

Published Jun. 26, 2016

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin of Russia received the geopolitical equivalent of manna from heaven when British voters opted to leave the European Union, speeding his long-term goal of weakening the most powerful alliance confronting the Kremlin as it seeks to rebuild its superpower muscles.

Officially, Moscow presented a somber facade, repeating its prevote stance that the referendum was of little direct concern.

"This will certainly have consequences for Britain, for Europe and for us," Putin told reporters at an Asian security conference in Uzbekistan on Friday. "The consequences will be global, they are inevitable; they will be both positive and negative."

He added that only time could tell if the outcome was more positive or negative.

From other precincts, however, the reactions were far less restrained.

"We must express solidarity with the British people, with their right decision to exit the European Union," Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a populist politician whose statements often reflect the national mood, said in a speech in parliament. "They did a great deed!"

One commentator on Facebook suggested that Britain should be renamed the "Londonskaya Narodnaya Respublika," or London People's Republic. That echoed the names of the two breakaway regions of southeastern Ukraine that Russia has supported militarily in their fight against the central government in Kiev.

Russia, which has worked assiduously to undermine European solidarity in recent years, has any number of reasons to celebrate, analysts said.

"The Kremlin is interested in any kind of disagreement, any kind of trouble in the EU which makes it weaker," said Nikolay Petrov, a professor of political science at the National Research University's Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

For starters, he said, the vote removes Britain as an influential voice in European efforts to isolate and punish Russia over its annexation of Crimea and its role in destabilizing Ukraine. Second, it helps Putin in his preferred method of dealing with strong nations one on one rather than as blocs. Third, it can be exploited at home as an example of how a lack of unity can lead to weakness.

"It can be used domestically to demonstrate that we are strong and everybody around us is not that strong," Petrov said. As for any negative economic consequences, he added, "Those are not the highest priority — geopolitically and strategically, the Kremlin thinks it will benefit."

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