Europeans were unable to persuade Russia to change its policy on Syria but co-operated more closely on Iran.
Moscow’s policy on Syria was based not so much on support for President Bashar Assad as opposition to the culture of interventionism and regime change and a fear of chaos and extremism. Led by France, Germany, Italy, and the UK, Europeans spent the first half of 2013 trying but failing to persuade Russia to act to stop Assad massacring his own people. However, disagreements subsequently opened up between EU member states about whether to support military intervention in Syria after evidence emerged of the use of chemical weapons. In particular, France and the UK were more hawkish than other member states. These disagreements, together with US President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to undertake military action, offered an opening to Russia. The Kremlin skilfully used it by brokering a deal to remove and destroy chemical weapons, which averted military intervention but also by implication legitimised Assad. Europeans backed the chemical weapons deal and were supportive of a second round of Geneva talks, which took place in late January 2014, but the real diplomacy is now between Russia and the US and their interlocutors in the Middle East.
The EU and Russia co-operated more closely on the question of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Their basic objectives are similar: neither wants a nuclear-armed Iran or a military strike on Iran. Russia is particularly concerned about the destabilising effects that either of these scenarios would have on its unstable southern neighbourhood. However, the EU and Russia differed in their assessment of the situation and on tactical questions such as the nature and severity of sanctions – Russia supported UN sanctions against Iran but was critical of the EU’s unilateral sanctions. When a prospect for breakthrough emerged in 2013, Russia was firmly on-board. But Moscow also did not fail to use the deal to advance its other agenda – a few days later it announced that the solution of the Iranian nuclear issue also meant that NATO’s missile defence shield had become redundant.