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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

Russian ambassador’s assassination: A diplomatic disaster for Turkey?

The Russian ambassador to Turkey has been killed at an event in Ankara, by a man chanting Islamist slogans and the words, “Don’t forget Aleppo!” Moscow has labeled it a terror attack.

The assassination of Andrey Karlov on December 19 comes shortly after Russia-backed forces retook rebel-controlled East Aleppo, which is likely to be a major milestone in the war in Syria. Karlov’s killing raises questions about the future of the already fractious relationship between Russia and Turkey.

The diplomat’s assassination, which was broadcast on social media within minutes of its occurrence, will no doubt be an embarrassment for Turkey. Its government has been keen to show it can handle the terrorist threat from Islamist and Kurdish groups. But just last Saturday, a Kurdish group killed 39 people in a double bombing in Istanbul. The fact that Karlov’s assassin, later identified as a policeman, was apparently a member of security at the event will raise difficult questions for Ankara.

After gunning down Karlov mid-speech, the shooter shouted, “God is great! Those who pledged allegiance to Muhammad for jihad. God is great!” in Arabic, before switching to Turkish. He then railed against the war in Syria, shouting, “Don’t forget Aleppo!”

His slogans imply that the assassination was a reaction to Russia’s involvement in Syria, which many have credited with saving the Assad government from defeat. Were it not for the support of Russian airpower and special forces – in addition to a range of Shia actors in the region including Hezbollah, Iranian troops, and Iraqi and Afghan militias – Assad’s depleted forces would likely have crumbled by now.

Turkish-Russian relations have been turbulent in recent years, especially since Moscow’s decision to intervene in Syria. Their relationship reached a nadir in late 2015, when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian warplane near Syria’s northern border. The incident prompted Moscow to ban Russian visitors to Turkey, putting a stranglehold on its vital tourism industry. However, within months Ankara offered an apology, and relations seemed to have warmed.

Increasingly, Turkey’s traditional ties to the West as a NATO member and aspiring EU state have been sidelined in favor of a more independent path. Although Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin have very different visions for Syria, they have shown a degree of respect for each other’s interests there. Russia has largely turned a blind eye to Turkish actions against Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria, while Turkey has steered clear of direct opposition to Russian-backed operations, last November’s jet incident aside. Yet with the Turkish prime minister’s announcement that it will expand its army’s operations in Syria to Kurdish-held areas, given that the attackers in the recent Istanbul bombings were reportedly trained in northern Syria, this status quo will face growing pressure.

But will the most recent bout of violence tear Russia and Turkey apart for good? It’s unlikely. Both have many shared, long-term interests, including energy politics (Turkey is a key transport route and market for Russian hydrocarbons), the power balance in the Levant, and tourism. In fact, Karlov’s murder could bring the two together. If the attack is framed as an act of terrorism, then both Turkey and Russia could rally around a shared struggle for security.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, and initial signs point to it being the work of an unaffiliated “lone wolf.” The difficulty of defending against attacks by violent individuals will likely deflect any Russian criticisms of poor Turkish security for their ambassador. Even so, the attacker’s anger at Russia’s record in Syria, and the abandonment of Aleppo by the international community, points to sentiments common among Turks. Many Turks – as well as the country’s Islamist government, which has growing ambitions to be the voice of the region’s Sunni Muslims – have watched in horror as the Assad government commits flagrant abuses against its Sunni-majority citizenry.

Whether it’s comradeship or conflict that prevails between Putin and Erdoğan after the assassination of Karlov, the real litmus test will come next summer. While Moscow’s ban on tourism to Turkey crippled the holiday industry along the country’s south coast, most hoped that 2017 would see a revival. However, if the average Russian sees the assassination as a portent of a wider threat to Russians in the region, then the beaches may remain empty.

Russia knows that if it has a seat at the negotiating tables of the Middle East, its status as a global power cannot be ignored. Putin’s gamble in intervening in Syria seems to have been rooted in this calculus. Whatever the consequences of this horrific killing are for Turkish-Russian relations, for Moscow it will be a painful reminder of the cost of flexing its muscles.