Of all the things to discuss in relation to the horrors of Ukraine, Brexit is low on the list. But there are multiple linkages, which Professor Chris Grey discusses as a series of reminders, lessons and hopes.

First published: March 2022.

I want to begin this piece by saying, unequivocally, that of all the many dimensions of the horrors unfolding in Ukraine, Brexit is very low on the list of things to give attention to. Like, I would suppose, most people I have been horrified by the Russian invasion but also inspired and deeply moved by the extraordinary courage shown by the people of Ukraine. To the extent that this reaction is, indeed, widely shared, the conflict has served to clarify the distinction between the rights and rules-based values of liberal democracy and the violence and immorality of autocratic nationalism.

In less highfalutin’ language: it has clarified the basic moral divide between bullies and those they seek to bully.

Nevertheless, this is a column about Brexit and there are linkages, important ones at that, with the Ukraine war. It is both wrong and stupid that some commentators have tried to render any discussion of these illegitimate or irrelevant. It is especially wrong and stupid when coming from Brexiters given that some of them are, themselves, trying to suggest that the UK’s response to the crisis in some way shows the benefits of being out of the EU, or that Brexit has enabled the UK to exert international leadership in the face of Russia’s attack. So let’s have no hypocrisy when others also discuss the linkages.

I think these linkages are of three types. The first are reminders of things we already knew, rather than new things revealed by the war. The second are things we may have known but which are freshly illustrated, or exacerbated, by the war. The third are at least potentially hopeful things that these reminders and lessons may lead to.

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To speak of linkages most certainly doesn’t mean that Brexit ‘caused’ the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I’m not sure that anyone is actually claiming this (reports of people doing so seem to distort what is actually said, though of course, it’s always possible to find a tweet from someone or other saying almost anything), but if they are then it’s nonsense.

However, it can be said that Brexit is one aspect of the more general fracturing of the liberal international order in recent years – a topic well beyond the scope of this blog – which has made its response to previous Russian nationalist aggression so ineffective, thus encouraging Putin to this latest act of war. But Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the limited international reaction to these, both pre-date Brexit.

It can also certainly be said that those campaigning for Brexit contributed to enfeebling the international response to those earlier aggressions. Both Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson used the Crimea annexation as a stick to beat the EU with, claiming that it had unjustifiably provoked Russia by offering Ukraine an Association Agreement. In Johnson’s words during the 2016 referendum campaign, “if you want an example of EU foreign policy making on the hoof, and the EU’s pretensions to be running a defence policy, that have caused real trouble, then look at what has happened in Ukraine”. This, of course, is still Farage’s line about the current war.

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine doesn’t shed any new light on the causes of Brexit, and in particular on the question of whether and to what effect there was Russian interference in the referendum. It serves only as a reminder of how Brexit was a policy which was very much to Russia’s advantage, and therefore of the folly of pursuing something that our friends counselled against whilst our enemies were delighted by. If the Brexiters could but see it, Putin’s gloating support for Theresa May’s refusal to hold a confirmatory referendum was a sign of how they were aiding his goals. Indeed a significant wellspring of support for Brexit came from Putin apologists like Farage on the far right and probably from those of the Lexiters who overlap with those parts of the far left who are pro-Putin, if only because they are also anti-US, anti-EU and anti-NATO. Again we already knew this, so Ukraine is a reminder not a revelation.

The Ukraine war is also a reminder of the extent to which Russian money has flooded into the British economy, bringing with it influence and corruption and, most seriously of all, radically infiltrating the funding of the Tory Party and arguably compromising Boris Johnson. The former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve is surely right to say that tolerance of all this has blinded and perhaps distorted the UK’s approach to Russia for years. This at the very least raises questions about where the Tory government’s interests lie in responding to the Russian invasion, but it is not an effect of Brexit.


Whilst all of the previous issues are important to recall as reminders of things we knew, there are many other things which the Ukraine War has illustrated or revealed about Brexit.

▫ Brexit is the proximate cause of Boris Johnson being Prime Minister, and therefore of the UK having a leader who is totally unsuited to serious statesmanship, disliked and distrusted abroad, and mired in scandal which he uses the war to distract from. His predilection for grand statements that turn out to be untrue has already been in evidence in this crisis, with his false claims about how many individuals have been sanctioned. In this very general sense, Brexit has made the UK less effective in responding to the crisis because it saddled us with his leadership.

▫ More specifically, as I’ve argued many times on my blog, regardless of who the Prime Minister is Brexit has diminished the UK’s standing in the world. According to Christopher Phillips, Professor of International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London, this marginalisation has been underlined by the Ukraine crisis. Crucially, Brexit diminished the UK in the eyes of Russia, both in itself and because of the internal divisions it unleashed, divisions much exacerbated by the Brexiters’ choice to enact it in the hardest and least consensual way.*

▫ Whilst Brexit marginalised the UK it was not, in and of itself, at odds with the rules-based international order. However, Brexiters, and Johnson in particular, chose to regard Brexit as a licence to flout or threaten to flout national law (e.g. Prorogation of Parliament) and international law (e.g. Internal Markets Bill, unilateral extensions to grace periods in the Northern Ireland Protocol). In this way, the UK’s moral authority and ‘moral image’ have been undermined, blunting its ability to challenge Russia now. Indeed this consequence of Brexit Britain’s flirtations with international pariahdom was exactly what even pro-Brexit statesmen such as Michael Howard warned of, citing Russia specifically.

▫ By definition, Brexit makes the UK an outsider to EU decisions about sanctions and other measures. To the extent that there is a co-ordinated UK-EU response it is made more complex by Brexit, which does not remove the need for co-ordination but adds an extra layer, as discussed in my piece of 28 January. Having an ‘independent sanctions policy’ isn’t a great prize, it’s a new problem. Moreover, Brexit hasn’t just added complexity but also, because of how it has been done and especially in the disdain for international law just mentioned, it has injected profound distrust into UK-EU relations. Yet co-ordinated sanctions and EU support are vital, as the UK found out at the time of Russia's Salisbury poison attack.

▫ Brexit has enfeebled the UK economy making the costs of exerting really tough sanctions on Russia that much more difficult to bear. This perhaps partly explains why the UK’s initial sanctions response, for all the claims made for it, was so timid, and still lags behind that of the EU.

The war exposes the utter fatuity of a central Brexiter claim, that security was the province of NATO rather than the EU. It was nonsensical anyway, because of the deep interconnections between the two. But also the scope for NATO involvement has been limited because Ukraine isn’t a member, which has underscored the existence of multiple channels (economic, diplomatic, cultural, intelligence, military) of security, and brought the role of the EU and the EU-US axis to the fore. It’s true that the UK still has significant assets in all these domains, but patching them on to an architecture from which it has partially detached itself reduces their potency.

▫ Brexit has increased the propensity of the UK to make boastful claims about its global leadership and, especially, to make them by explicitly belittling the EU and its member states. This blunts the effectiveness of the collective effort against Russia by making it competitive rather than co-operative, and by offending allies from with whom co-operation is needed. In any case, despite the UK’s initial ‘muscularity’ about Russia's threat to Ukraine, since the invasion it has lagged behind the EU in the extent of sanctions, including action against the RT TV and Sputnik Radio propaganda broadcasters, and as regards receiving refugees.

▫ Related to this hubris, Brexit has led the UK to position itself as ‘Global Britain’ understood as distinct from what Johnson called “the cramped horizons of a regional foreign policy” when launching last year’s Integrated Review. This in turn has led it to disperse the limited resources it has by posturing as a global military power. For example, the deployment of the carrier fleet to the Indo-Pacific, which was also meant to show the UK’s tilt in trading relationships, is at best irrelevant to, and at worst detracts from, its European defence and security role (for that matter, it is also irrelevant to extending global trade opportunities). As Peter Kellner writes for Carnegie Europe, the Ukraine war has exposed the absurdity of this entire strategy.

▫ Brexit has often involved the claim that the EU is slow, lumbering and prone to internal disputes that prevent it agreeing on effective actions, whereas the UK on its own would be quicker and more decisive. In relation to Ukraine, this was being claimed as recently as a few weeks ago. But events since the invasion have comprehensively shredded that idea (as, had Brexiters been paying attention, did the Brexit process itself), with the EU moving quickly to a much firmer sanctions response, a much more robust military supply response, and a much more humane and supportive refugee policy. In fact, it’s quite likely that had the UK still been a member state it would have slowed or even prevented this, given its antipathy to anything that looked like an EU defence policy as well as its hostility to accepting refugees.

▫ Indeed Brexit was supported in no small part because of hostility to migration from, especially, eastern Europe which was also (and wrongly) conflated with the actual or possible arrival of refugees and asylum seekers. A key Brexiter claim for what Brexit has achieved is a points-based immigration system, and the post-Brexit government has trumpeted a highly hostile policy to refugees and asylum seekers. The persistence of that mood can be seen in the odious suggestion from Immigration Minister Kevin Foster that Ukrainians fleeing war might be able to come to the UK on fruit picking visas, and even more explicitly in Sir Edward Leigh’s morally bankrupt call to temper any relaxation of restrictions because of the number of East Europeans already in his constituency. For this reason, it is unsurprising that the government’s approach to refugees from Ukraine has only grudgingly and limitedly been liberalised under public and political pressure and, as with sanctions, the leadership shown by the EU. In this sense, Brexit – or at least a Brexit-related mentality – has made the UK’s response to the crisis less effective, as well as less humane, than it might have been.

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If the Ukraine war has done much to expose the adverse geopolitical consequences of Brexit, it may also serve to repair some of the damage of Brexit. I speculated last week that it might make the UK more amenable to an amicable resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol row. That remains speculation, but it is shared by the well-informed analyst Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform and there are now reports that, at the least, the war has postponed any likely use of Article 16.

Some experts are already suggesting that the war may also lead to a much tighter UK-EU security relationship. In fact, under Theresa May, and even as late as the Political Declaration that accompanied Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement, this had always been envisaged. It was one of many casualties of the way that Johnson and David Frost immediately discarded the declaration, and insisted on a ‘sovereignty at all costs’ Brexit. Hence the security arrangements under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement were quite thin, as the former national security adviser, Lord Ricketts, explained at the time. It’s too early to tell yet, but a straw in the wind may be Liz Truss attending, by invitation, today’s meeting of the EU foreign affairs council just as she would have done, as of right, had the UK still been a member.

None of this means that re-joining is any closer. But the Ukraine War might serve to show Brexiters that the EU is not the enemy. For with the new clarity the war has brought comes the particular clarity that a war is underway. Some, such as the courageous and much-abused journalist Carole Cadwalladr, say it has been underway as a Great Information War since 2014. Similarly, Fiona Hill, a leading analyst of Putin’s Russia, asserts:

“We’re already in [World War Three]. We have been for some time … People shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that we’re just on the brink of something. We’ve been well and truly in it for quite a long period of time. But this is also a full-spectrum information war …”

In other words, it may in some ways be a different kind of war to those of the last century, but it is still a war, and now that it has broken out in the much more familiar ways of the last century that has become plain.

This is not, to state the obvious, a cause for ‘hope’ in any general sense. It’s a disaster. But it may force us to be realistic, and to see that it’s a war in which the UK and the EU are very much on the same side. It may be wishful thinking on my part – though regular readers will know this isn’t one of my more obvious failings – but I think there’s already an emerging sense that the Ukraine war has somehow ‘punctured’ Brexit, making it seem pointless and almost embarrassingly out of date.

For example, writing in the Financial Times Robert Shrimsley suggests the war “marks the end of Brexit illusions”, based on similar points to those I’ve made about the Global Britain strategy and the complex architecture of European and global security. In the same vein, the Guardian’s Rafael Behr writes of how it should expose the “detour into Brexit fantasy land” and lead to the UK aligning more closely with the “idea” of Europe to which Ukrainians also cleave. Even smaller things, like the endless hostility to the BBC, suddenly seem like yesterday’s indulgence as (along with other outlets) their journalists broadcast from the front line and it opens new short-wave radio services for Ukraine.

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Clarity – and unity?

Of course much depends upon how Brexiters, especially, react. MPs like Leigh are clearly still stuck in 2016 as are those determined to snipe at the EU response to Putin, whilst Brexiter journalists like Steven Glover bray that the war vindicates Brexit. Meanwhile, the alt-Right has started to fantasise that the war is the new ‘Establishment ploy’ after Covid to bamboozle the masses, with some anti-vaxxers getting behind Putin, and insulting Ukrainians taking up arms by linking them to their insane ‘New World Order’ conspiracy theory. In a related part of the Brexitosphere, the peculiar and peculiarly influential spawn of the Revolutionary Communist Party, spiked, has come up with the all too predictable 'contrarian' analysis that Putin has been emboldened by the ‘woke’ elite in the West. Thus the information warriors are mobilising (but, importantly, also getting divided).

But in the face of the literal war, hopefully many more people, whatever they voted in 2016, will find that they once again have much in common. The unusual sight of MPs unanimously giving the Ukrainian Ambassador a standing ovation symbolises that. As for the public, surveys show considerable shared concern about the invasion of Ukraine (overall 88% are concerned, 95% of remain voters, 87% of leave voters), shared belief about the extent of Russian territorial ambitions beyond Ukraine (45%, 46%, 51%) and shared belief about the likelihood of a wider war involving the UK (52%, 53%, 54%). There is more of a split in support for waiving visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees but even so it reaches a hefty 70% amongst leave voters (91% amongst remainers).

Much as I think World War Two analogies are over-used in British politics, it’s worth remembering that by 1940 the very bitter divisions over Munich had been forgotten. Those who clung to appeasement, and even those who sympathised with Nazis, didn’t entirely disappear but were massively marginalised. Of course, there are no bombs falling on British cities in 2022, but as we see them fall on our friends and allies in Ukraine and hear Putin talk chillingly about using his nuclear weapons, there may emerge a new sense of unity amongst those who, at the simplest of levels I described earlier, detest bullies.

As we witness the stupendous bravery of the Ukrainian people, that could give us the moral and political courage to admit, as a nation, that we made a terrible mistake in 2016. It was a mistake which delighted and emboldened the bullies and, as we are now discovering, made it harder to support those they would victimise. But, with such courage, mistakes can be rectified. That courage will need to come from at least some Brexiters, and if it does then remainers will need to find the courage to respond magnanimously. Only then might we take the first steps on a wiser – and safer – path.

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(*) A small personal note about this. During the years of political conflict over Brexit I was invited several times to appear on RT TV and Sputnik Radio, both propaganda arms of Putin’s regime. Had I done so, I would of course have been critical of both Brexit and the government’s handling of it, as I was in other media appearances. So I always refused these invitations, because it was clear to me that (in a very minor way) I would be serving Putin’s purposes by displaying the divisions Brexit was causing to the audiences of those broadcasters.

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Professor Chris Grey, Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.


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