Why killing of Russian diplomat may well bring Turkey and Russia closer


By Julian Borger

The high-profile murder of a Russian diplomat in Ankara has inspired fearful comparisons with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 — and prompted some to speculate that Monday’s killing could also provide the spark for a regional conflagration.

But Turkish and Russian leaders moved rapidly to contain any damage to relations between the two countries, and analysts said that Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin are likely to find common ground in the desire to assign blame to their perceived strategic adversaries.

Both Ankara and the Kremlin announced that a meeting of foreign and defense ministers from Russia, Turkey and Iran to discuss the three allies’ next steps in Syria is to go ahead as planned in Moscow.

Erdogan called Putin to discuss the killing of Andrei Karlov and said afterwards they had agreed that “our cooperation and solidarity fighting terrorism should be even stronger”.

Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish commentator, said Erdogan and Putin will each want to point the finger at their perceived antagonists. “Both sides believe in a western conspiracy to set them against each other,” he said.

Diplomatic analysts said that neither leader had an incentive to disrupt a loose accord they have reached over Syria, allowing each to pursue their war aims. Turkey has ensured that its incursion into northern Syria did nothing to weaken the siege on Aleppo by Russian and pro-Assad forces. Meanwhile, Moscow is widely believed to have given its assent to Turkish ambitions to take the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, to further its aim of blocking the consolidation of a Kurdish mini-state, Rojava, on Turkey’s southern flank.

“Russia and Turkey have every incentive to manage this crisis. The forced evacuation of Aleppo aids in Russia’s war effort, while Turkey has won Russian acquiescence to its efforts in [al-Bab] – which is intended to blunt Kurdish expansionism,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank.

He added that the assassination is likely to make bilateral ties more asymmetrical than they already are. “Russia has always had the upper hand. This just makes it stronger,” he said.

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Turkey and Russia both alleged a broader conspiracy behind Monday’s shooting. Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, referred to “dark forces” operating behind the assassin. Putin referred to Karlov’s assassination as a “provocation” aimed at derailing Russo-Turkish ties, using a common codeword for conspiracy by Moscow’s foreign enemies.

Pro-government commentators in both countries were quick to suggest there must be unseen western hands behind the killing, echoing Putin’s and Erdogan’s conspiratorial world views.

A Russian senator, Frantz Klintsevich, claimed it was “highly likely that representatives of foreign NATO secret service are behind” Karlov’s killing. Another senator, Alexei Pushkov, blamed “political and media hysteria” sown by Russia’s enemies, and tweeted that “the key question is who is behind the assassination and therefore an undeclared war on Russia”.

Erdogan’s supporters started broadcasting a theory that the assassin was a supporter of Erdogan’s political enemy Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in the US.

The Turkish president has blamed Gülenists for a July coup attempt against him, using the claim as justification for arrests of ten of thousands of alleged Gülen supporters in the government, military, judiciary and press. Turkish calls for his extradition are a major cause of friction in bilateral relations with the US.

Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the killing in Ankara will not cause the same crisis in relations triggered by the Turkish shooting down of a Russian warplane along the Syrian border in November 2015.

“This time around, there is no willingness on either side to escalate. On the contrary, first official statements tend to view this attack as an attempt to derail the ongoing rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow,” Ülgen said.

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“Going forward, Moscow will nonetheless want a thorough investigation into the nature of the attack so as to identify the culprits. It remains to be seen whether this was a lone wolf attack or the doing of a more organized jihadist cell that has infiltrated Turkish law enforcement.”

Maxim Suchkov, an expert on the Middle East at the Russian International Affairs Council, agreed that there is no political incentive in either Moscow or Ankara to turn the killing into a wider crisis, and argued that fearful comparisons with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo more than a century ago were misplaced.

“Russia and Turkey have recently had substantial contacts on the senior military and political level,” Suchkov said. “Troublesome parallels with the beginning of the first world war are in the air but if Erdogan manages to carry out timely and effective crisis diplomacy with Putin, there may be no serious consequences for the state of the bilateral relationship … Too much is at stake for both Moscow and Ankara right now.”

(This column originally appeared in the Guardian on December 19.)