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What the Murder of the Russian Ambassador Might Mean
Flowers are placed in front of a portrait of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on December 20, 2016, a day after his assassination in the Turkish capital. (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

What the Murder of the Russian Ambassador Might Mean

Walter Russell Mead

With the Foreign Ministers of Iran, Turkey, and Russia set to meet in Moscow tomorrow to discuss Syria after the fall of Aleppo, an unexpected tragedy shook the diplomatic world earlier today: Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was assassinated in Ankara, at an art gallery exhibition called “Russia Through Turks’ Eyes“—shot in the back in front of running TV cameras by a man identified as Mevlut Mert Altintas, from the western province of Aydin, an off-duty police officer.

Having fired at the ambassador (who died shortly thereafter at a local hospital), the man shouted in Arabic “God is great! Those who pledged allegiance to Muhammad for jihad. God is great!” before switching to Turkish to yell, “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” He wounded at least three others, before being gunned down by Turkish police officers.

Putin, who could not be seen to be taking this sitting down, quickly held a press conference with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sitting at his side. His language wasn’t quite as raw as when he threatened to rub out Chechen terrorists in their outhouses ahead of launching the Second Chechen War, but it was no less biting and direct: “There can be only one answer to this—stepping up the fight against terrorism, and the bandits will feel this,” the Russian President said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was more generic. “We know that this is a provocation aiming to destroy the normalization process of Turkey-Russia relations,” he said. “But the Russian government and the Turkish republic have the will to not fall into that provocation.” Various voices around Turkey, including the Mayor of Ankara, immediately blamed the attack on Fethullah Gulen’s followers. It’s not clear at time of writing whether Turkish authorities were just reflexively speculating, or whether they had any concrete evidence.

As the news was breaking, many people took to Twitter to wonder aloud whether this was some kind of repeat of 1914. Could Karlov be this century’s Franz Ferdinand? Of course it’s unlikely that even the keenest observer of world events could have guessed at the repercussions of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo only a few short hours after the fact. And if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that it’s best not to jump to any conclusions.

That all said, as of right now, this does not look like a repeat of Sarajevo to us. Neither Russia nor Turkey has any interest in blowing this out of proportion. Rapprochement between the two countries has been coming along nicely after relations hit rock bottom following Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian fighter jet more than a year ago, and both sides have more to gain by having the relationship staying on track at the moment. Putin announced that a joint investigative committee with Turkish authorities would be immediately set up to try to figure out who was really behind the attack.

Whether Moscow and Ankara manage to stay on the same page remains to be seen, however. Both sides surely have a sense that jihadi feeling is growing stronger everywhere, but that may not be an adequate glue to keep the two countries cooperating for very long. For one, the assassination is an early indication of the Pyrrhic nature of Russia’s victory in Aleppo, at least in the world of Sunni Islam. Russia’s alliance with Shi’a Iran and the bloodbath Russia aided and abetted in Syria will make Russia the object of fanatical and determined hatred all the way from Turkey well into Central Asia. And the brazenness of the attack, perpetrated right under the noses of Turkish security, certainly diminishes Erdogan’s interest in being seen on the same side of the barricades as the Russians and the Persians, Turkey’s two most important historical enemies.

New contours ought to emerge at tomorrow’s ministerial meeting in Moscow. Expect a unified front to be proclaimed, but be on the lookout for fissures. They’re likely hiding right below the surface.

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