On Monday night the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, was assassinated in Ankara by a lone gunman who served as part of his security detail.
The gunman – after shooting Karlov – made an impassioned statement describing his actions as avenging the Russian decision to bomb Aleppo, Syria. The assassin himself was shot dead by security forces. While it is not clear at the moment of writing whether this was the lone wolf, or result of a deeper conspiracy involving any organised terrorist group, Karlov's assassination is being seen as carrying the potential to derail the rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow in the recent months. Were it to become clear that Karlov's assassination is indeed part of a larger conspiracy by Turkey-based Islamists and/or by a group that has enjoyed tacit support from the Erdogan government, Moscow is likely to retaliate in a way that can destabilise the region significantly.
For many on social media who follow global politics, Karlov's assassination was being seen as the 21st century's 1914 moment – when Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist, setting off the First World War. While this may indeed be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the assassination could seriously complicate calculations of all actors who have stakes in resolving the Syrian conflict in a fashion that preserves the balance of power in the Middle East and North Africa. This includes Russia, the United States, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. But the assassination, above all, puts two revisionist powers – Turkey and Russia – at loggerheads. Each of the two countries seek to, in their own ways, punch their geopolitical weight.
Both countries are led by authoritarian strongmen who relish playing complicated games with adversaries at home and abroad. Both countries are heavily weighed down by their long and proud histories which had put them at centres of empires – Turkey in the Ottoman empire and Russia in the Soviet one. Add to this the fact that Turkey remains a part of Nato – whose primary responsibility is to deter Russian adventurism – and it is easy to appreciate the extremely combustible nature of the situation. Following the end of the Ottoman empire, Turkey was envisioned to be a modern secular state by its founder Mustafa Kemal Attartuk.
Its military has been the quintessential praetorian guard of the republic, in service of secular ideals. In time, Turkey became a key part of the American plan to contain the Soviet Union. But Turkey's traditional bonds with the west – with Europe and the United States – have been fraying for some time now. Turks resent the fact that many European states have stood in the way of their country becoming a part of the European Union. With the consolidation of power in the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who many view as harbouring Islamist sympathies – Turkey has entered into uncharted waters. Its government's commitment to democracy and secularism remains unclear. Its relationship with the United States – and Nato – is extremely transactional at the best of times, and downright-confrontational at others. Things came to a pass this summer when Erdogan all but accused the United States of plotting a coup to depose him from power. The coup itself failed due to lack of coordination, and resulted in a massive purge of Turkish civil servants and military officials who were seen to be unsympathetic to Erdogan.
Many powers have also long suspected that the Turkish government has – in the fashion of Saudi Arabia – covertly supported IS and other Sunni-radical groups in the region as a way to keep Shia/Iran forces in check. As such, it wants Iran-backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad removed from power in Damascus as a precondition to any settlement of the Syrian conflict now in its sixth year. Enter the Russians. Vladimir Putin has – over the span of the Syrian conflict – quickly exploited Western indecisiveness and/or incapability to end the conflict on their own terms to make itself a major player backing Assad.
In the name of counter-terrorist operations, Assad's forces have been systematically liquidating any credible opposition to its regime. The ongoing crisis in Aleppo is a grim reminder of this strategy. Putin has, over the last decade, embarked on a grand strategy to restore lost Russian glory. A large part of that plan revolves around firmly signalling to the west that Russia remains a great geopolitical power. Russian involvement in the Middle East is part of that muscular signalling strategy. The possibility of a Russia-Turkey military conflict became quite real in November 2015 when a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was shot down by Turkey for violating its air-space.
Any Russian retaliation then would have led Turkey to invoke Article 5 of the Nato charter – the mutual defence clause that views any attack on a member-state as an attack on all. But both countries decided to back down from further escalation. At the heart of this coordinated climbdown by both Turkey and Russia was elementary geopolitics. Turkey – at a time when it faces considerable approbation from the west – knows that Putin's Russia could provide it with the much needed clout, a simple “enemy's enemy” argument. Erdogan knows that talks of a Russia-Turkey entente would unnerve the west, ceding him more room to bargain with them. From Putin's point of view – as long as Turkey does not hurt Moscow's core interests, there is no real reason for him to enter into a military conflagration which could draw the rest of Nato in.
The question following Kalrov's assassination is this: Would both countries choose to overlook this incident in the interest of their larger geopolitical calculations? Or does the assassination portend an even darker future when it comes to regional stability?
The author is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and a national security columnist for Firstpost. Views expressed here are personal. He tweets @AbhijnanRej.
Updated Date: Dec 20, 2016 09:34 AM