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Turkey and Russia's Middle East power grabs

Turkey and Russia are asserting their influence in the Middle East like never before. That's according to Johns Hopkins University Middle East Scholar Vali Nasr, who joins Ian Bremmer on GZERO World to unpack the changing power dynamics in the Middle East and the American government's eagerness to pivot away from the region altogether. And while Russian leader Vladimir Putin's designs on the Middle East have been evident long before he started propping up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Nasr says that Turkey is less of an open book. "We actually don't have a handle on where Turkey's going in the Middle East. If it comes to a blow, either with Israel, with Iran, with Russia, what does it mean for NATO?" Nasr spoke with Ian Bremmer on an episode of GZERO World.

Watch the episode: Is the US Misjudging the Middle East's Power Shifts? Vali Nasr's View

The geopolitics of the Middle East shake up

How have geopolitics in the Middle East changed over the last few decades, and what does it mean for the Biden administration's strategy in this region? Like the two presidents before him, Joe Biden is eager to shift focus and resources away from the Middle East to China and the growing competition it presents. But there are some loose ends to tie up first in the Middle East, to say the least. Ian Bremmer explains on GZERO World.

Watch the episode: Is the US Misjudging the Middle East's Power Shifts? Vali Nasr's View

Has the Middle East’s “Arab Moment” passed?

President Biden's approach to the Middle East will have to adapt to the once-in-a-generation power grab occurring between Iran, Israel, and Turkey while Arab nations in the region increasingly lose influence. That's according to Johns Hopkins University Middle East scholar Vali Nasr. "The Arabs are not really deciding the geostrategy of the region. They're not the strongest players right now. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the events of the Arab Spring, the bigger players like Iraq, Syria, Egypt lost their footing—they've collapsed." Nasr spoke with Ian Bremmer on an episode of GZERO World.

Watch the episode: Is the US Misjudging the Middle East's Power Shifts? Vali Nasr's View

Is the US misjudging the Middle East’s power shifts? Vali Nasr's view

"Pivot to Asia." It was the catchphrase floating around Washington DC's foreign policy circles in 2009 when President Obama first took office. And yet twelve years later, the Middle East continues to consume the attention of the United States' military and diplomatic efforts. Now President Biden is determined to change that, and to turn Washington's attention to Asia once and for all as he moves to confront a growing China. But according to Johns Hopkins University Middle East scholar Vali Nasr, President Biden's approach to the Middle East will have to adapt to the once-in-a-generation power grab occurring between Iran, Israel, and Turkey while Arab nations in the region increasingly lose influence.

The Graphic Truth: How a decade of war has crushed Syria

Syria's decade-long civil war has wreaked havoc on an entire generation of Syrians, and given rise to one of the worst refugee crises in decades. What was once a stable nation — albeit under dictatorial rule — with a sizable middle class has become a hellish reality: the economy is in shambles and state infrastructure has been pummeled, making access to basic services all but impossible. Across the country, families are struggling to pay for food staples, kids are out of school, and working-age people can't find jobs — the only Syrians who still prosper are those who left. We compare a few indicators from before and after the devastating conflict.

Syria before and after

This week, we mark the 10-year anniversary of the beginning of Syria's catastrophic civil war.

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Biden strikes Syria. Now what?

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and as we head into the weekend, a Quick Take on, well, the first bombing campaign of the new Biden administration. You kind of knew it was going to happen. Against some Iranian-backed militias in Syria, looks like a couple of dozen, perhaps more killed, and some militia-connected military facilities destroyed. I think there are a few ways to look at this, maybe three different lenses.

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Why doesn’t the EU hit Russia harder?

Earlier this week the European Union agreed to slap sanctions on a handful of senior Russian officials over the jailing of top Putin critic Alexei Navalny. Using a new set of sanctions designed specifically to target human rights abuses, Brussels will freeze bank accounts and deny visas to four of Russia's top justice and security officials involved in Navalny's case.

As punishments go, that's not particularly drastic: surely it stings a bit to lose access to European banks and beaches, but no one suspects that these measures are going to convince the Kremlin to free Navalny. The dissident's own people have called on Brussels to do more.

So why does the EU, the world's largest economic bloc, seem to have so little leverage over a country whose economy is barely larger than Spain's? A few things to bear in mind.

Russia keeps the heat running in Europe. The European Union depends on Moscow for some 40 percent of its gas imports and 30 percent of oil imports. For some EU countries, the numbers are even higher: Germany gets half its gas from Russian companies and is moving ahead with a new Russian gas pipeline as we speak. In Eastern Europe, the dependency ranges from roughly two-thirds in the cases of, say, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, to a straight 100 percent in the case of Finland.

The EU needs Russian cooperation outside of Europe too. Over the past decade, Moscow has shrewdly positioned itself as a kingmaker in several crises beyond Europe's borders that reverberate within the union. In Syria, Libya, the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, Russian military or mercenaries exert an outsized role in conflicts that have generated large numbers of refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

There isn't really an "EU". The European Union is actually 27 member states, each with their own interests and views on Russia. Germany, for example, has to balance its ambitions of staking out a firmer pro-democracy European foreign policy against the energy needs of its powerful industries. France has long sought closer cooperation with Moscow on geopolitical issues across the Middle East and Africa. Many former Eastern Bloc states, meanwhile, have begun to see Moscow as a useful counterweight to an overbearing or incompetent Brussels. And of course, the UK, which historically took a harder line against Russia, is now no longer part of the EU at all.

Doing more would require a tough stomach. To be clear, it's not that the EU doesn't have ways to seriously hurt the Kremlin. Sanctioning Russia's oil and gas exports or its foreign debt would deal a big blow to Putin's regime. But the blowback for Europe would be tremendous — European consumers and factories would likely suffer massive energy shocks, while financial markets and banks that trade Russian debt would see turmoil.

After all, there's a reason that even in 2014 — when Russia invaded an EU partner state and started a civil war there — both Europe (and the US, with far less vulnerability to Russian retaliation than its European friends) stopped short of making big moves like this.

The bottom line: Europe is keen to be a more active global player on security and human rights. But when it comes to Russia, reality bites hard.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the Baltics as a whole receive 100 percent of their gas from Russia. While the dependency is very high -- ranging from 79 percent in the case of Estonia to 93 percent in Latvia -- Finland is the only member state that actually depends fully on Russia for natural gas. We regret the error and thank reader Guido W. for pointing it out.

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