Just after Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, addressed a small crowd at a photography exhibition on Monday night in the capital Ankara, a smartly dressed man fired into the air, before putting a bullet in Karlov’s back. Moments before he had been talking about the beautiful geography of his country, then in front of cameras, his assassin was warning the world about the consequences of “forgetting about Aleppo… forgetting about Syria”. The man in the black suit and tie then waved his pistol and pledged to die in the photography gallery, rather than face arrest by Turkish police. The killer has now been identified as Mevlut Mert Altıntas, 22, a member of the Turkish riot police. It is not clear if he had links to any group.
“Russia as seen by Turks”, the title of the exhibition that featured numerous bucolic views of the country, was what the assassin seems to have attempted to unsettle. And how has Russia been seen by Turks in the past few months? As I tried to make it to a meeting last week in Taksim, Istanbul’s vibrant heart, I noticed huge crowds outside the Russian Consulate — protestors were demonstrating, as they had done numerous times this month, against Russian support of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, the Turkish government has been co-operating with Russia on a ceasefire operation in Syria — brokering a deal last week with the Syrian rebels to evacuate civilians from Aleppo. Today, the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran meeting in Moscow to discuss a political resolution to the conflict.
With Karlov’s death last night (his killer was also shot dead during the subsequent police raid), many anticipated the onset of a crisis in the vastly improved relations between two countries. The relationship had suffered a huge blow almost exactly a year before, when a Turkish F16 pilot downed a Russian jet in December 2015, causing the kind of diplomatic crisis that people feared would end in a new Crimean War. Back then, the mood in Turkey turned starkly anti-Russian and there was little surprise when Putin too proved unforgiving: there were sanctions imposed by Moscow, freezes on Russian flights, further blows to Turkey’s tourism industry. So will the killing of Russia’s highest ranking official in Turkey by a Turkish police officer just over 12 months later have a similar impact on the relationship?
The answer seems to be it will likely only strengthen it. Following the change in Turkey’s prime minister in May this year (when Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of Turkey’s recent foreign policy in Syria, was replaced with Binali Yildirim, a practical man best known for his transportation projects), the nation has shifted its geopolitical alliances. The new prime minister pledged to “increase the number of our friends and decrease the number of our enemies.” As a result, Turkey has become an ally of Russia and softened its anti-regime rhetoric in Syria. The 62-year-old Karlov experienced all sides of the rapidly evolving relationship between the two nations, having arrived in Turkey to take up his post in July 2013. He is credited with playing an important role in aiding the rapprochement between the two nations in the second half of the year.
“Although this assassination is a significant second blow to Turkish-Russian relations since the downing of the Russian jet, it will unlikely impair these relations,” Akın Ünver, assistant professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said.
Assessments of World War III or analogies of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that quickly followed the assassination are “quite out of proportion” according to Ünver. “If anything, it will increase intelligence and security partnership between the two countries. Yet, the incident impairs Ankara’s ability to diplomatically pressure Russia either in Aleppo evacuation, or its aftermath, or the role of Iran in post-war Syria. Furthermore, it opens up more extensive pressuring channels for Moscow to force Ankara to end any and all proxy relations into Syria, effectively cutting off Ankara from Aleppo or its aftermath.”
But for many in Turkey, the killing of the Russian ambassador will be remembered for the terrifying theatricality with which it was staged: the assassin waving his gun at the brave cameraman and the Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici. The attack, which they captured on film in all its cold violence, was a stark reminder of the level of security challenge Turkey is facing today.
Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul.