How Will Russia React to the Assassination of its Turkish Ambassador?

Taking a long historical view, the videotaped assassination of Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov is disturbing for more reasons than its public and shocking nature. Few modern nations have fought as frequently or as viciously as the Russians and the Turks, and you do not have to be a historian to understand the role assassinations have played in provoking conflict. While right now it seems unlikely that Karlov’s murder will result in an open clash between Russia and Turkey, it is hardly something to discount, and reemphasizes the fraught situation that will face president-elect Trump when he takes the reigns from his largely feckless predecessor.

At least the historical animosity and tension between Russia and Turkey is not Obama’s fault. Between the 16th and 20th Centuries the Turks and Russians have fought a dozen times, most recently during World War I. Russia views Istanbul, the Bosporus, the Dardanelles, and even Anatolia itself within its sphere of influence, if not former imperial territories. Russia sees itself as the rightful heir of Byzantium (which by many historical measures it legitimately is.) That empire controlled those aforementioned places until the Turks finally conquered Constantinople in 1453. It is hardly an accident that the first Russo-Turkish war erupted little more than a century later. Thus, taking a very long historical view, it might be said the Russians and the Turks have been fighting since the 11th Century, when the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert. That battle was fought very near modern-day Syria. The Seljuk Sultan Arp Arslan marched from Aleppo, a quite modern battlefield, not far from where Russian and Turkish forces sit today near Syria’s northern border.  

While ultimately the succeeding Ottoman Turks completely defeated the Byzantines, most of the subsequent Russo-Turkish wars went in Russia’s favor, as the Ottoman Empire weakened and eventually collapsed. Those conflicts, though relatively far from Western Europe, greatly interested the major powers there, provoking questionable interventions (as in the Crimea) and campaigns (as in the Dardanelles in World War I.)  Those cautionary tales bear remembering today.

The assassination of an ambassador is no small thing, though perhaps you would not know it from the Obama administration’s negligence in protecting its ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens or the subsequent falsification of the causes for the murder. A less recent but perhaps more apt example of how these things can spin out of control is the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Britain by Palestinian-Arab terrorists in 1982. That served as a casus belli for the Israel invasion of Lebanon allowing the Israelis to rout the PLO and dismember Syrian forces stationed there. While things went well for Israel at first, the subsequent Lebanese quagmire, in which Hizb’allah replaced the much less capable PLO, ultimately worsened Israel’s position.   

Vladimir Putin’s response to the assassination has so far been measured, and Russia’s reaction will likely be something between the flaccid approach of the Obama administration and the extremely aggressive Israeli one. Conventional wisdom suggests that the attack is as much against the Turkish government as it is Russia, as the two countries have steadily improved relations since the nadir reached in the wake of the Turkish shootdown of a Russian warplane in November 2015. After shooting Karlov, his killer ranted about Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, to which the Turks have of late, offered little if any opposition. Putin arguably would be playing into the hands of those that oppose him in Syria by allowing the attack to undermine improving Russian relations with Turkey.  

Still, one cannot discount the possibility that Putin will take advantage of the situation to aggrandize Russia’s position in the region even further.  Along with the airplane shootdown, the assassination of Karlov will take its place in a catalogue of insults that Putin might -- with an unforeseeable future event -- use to justify some sort of direct military action against the Turks.

Were something like this to occur, or if Putin should act more aggressively than seems likely at this point, Turkey could invoke the Atlantic Charter and call on NATO for support. That would be a risky gamble for Putin, but much less so than in the past. American political, military and diplomatic influence in the region since the end of World War II has probably never been lower, thanks in large part to the policies and incompetence of the Obama administration. The 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, for example, is a shadow of its former self.  

Whether Putin has much to fear from Donald Trump, who has been conciliatory to the Russian leader, and somewhat dismissive of NATO, is a great unknown. Perhaps Russian intelligence has a better idea than most of the rest of us. Not because they put Trump in office as hysterical Democrats would have it, but because they are good at what they do.   

The assassination of Karlov is highly unlikely to lead to war in the short term, but should American influence in the region continue to wane, and with a militarily weak Europe preoccupied with existential internal problems, there remain a world of possibilities open to a man of Putin’s intellect and daring. And he has a good bit of history on his side.  

Taking a long historical view, the videotaped assassination of Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov is disturbing for more reasons than its public and shocking nature. Few modern nations have fought as frequently or as viciously as the Russians and the Turks, and you do not have to be a historian to understand the role assassinations have played in provoking conflict. While right now it seems unlikely that Karlov’s murder will result in an open clash between Russia and Turkey, it is hardly something to discount, and reemphasizes the fraught situation that will face president-elect Trump when he takes the reigns from his largely feckless predecessor.

At least the historical animosity and tension between Russia and Turkey is not Obama’s fault. Between the 16th and 20th Centuries the Turks and Russians have fought a dozen times, most recently during World War I. Russia views Istanbul, the Bosporus, the Dardanelles, and even Anatolia itself within its sphere of influence, if not former imperial territories. Russia sees itself as the rightful heir of Byzantium (which by many historical measures it legitimately is.) That empire controlled those aforementioned places until the Turks finally conquered Constantinople in 1453. It is hardly an accident that the first Russo-Turkish war erupted little more than a century later. Thus, taking a very long historical view, it might be said the Russians and the Turks have been fighting since the 11th Century, when the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert. That battle was fought very near modern-day Syria. The Seljuk Sultan Arp Arslan marched from Aleppo, a quite modern battlefield, not far from where Russian and Turkish forces sit today near Syria’s northern border.  

While ultimately the succeeding Ottoman Turks completely defeated the Byzantines, most of the subsequent Russo-Turkish wars went in Russia’s favor, as the Ottoman Empire weakened and eventually collapsed. Those conflicts, though relatively far from Western Europe, greatly interested the major powers there, provoking questionable interventions (as in the Crimea) and campaigns (as in the Dardanelles in World War I.)  Those cautionary tales bear remembering today.

The assassination of an ambassador is no small thing, though perhaps you would not know it from the Obama administration’s negligence in protecting its ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens or the subsequent falsification of the causes for the murder. A less recent but perhaps more apt example of how these things can spin out of control is the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Britain by Palestinian-Arab terrorists in 1982. That served as a casus belli for the Israel invasion of Lebanon allowing the Israelis to rout the PLO and dismember Syrian forces stationed there. While things went well for Israel at first, the subsequent Lebanese quagmire, in which Hizb’allah replaced the much less capable PLO, ultimately worsened Israel’s position.   

Vladimir Putin’s response to the assassination has so far been measured, and Russia’s reaction will likely be something between the flaccid approach of the Obama administration and the extremely aggressive Israeli one. Conventional wisdom suggests that the attack is as much against the Turkish government as it is Russia, as the two countries have steadily improved relations since the nadir reached in the wake of the Turkish shootdown of a Russian warplane in November 2015. After shooting Karlov, his killer ranted about Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, to which the Turks have of late, offered little if any opposition. Putin arguably would be playing into the hands of those that oppose him in Syria by allowing the attack to undermine improving Russian relations with Turkey.  

Still, one cannot discount the possibility that Putin will take advantage of the situation to aggrandize Russia’s position in the region even further.  Along with the airplane shootdown, the assassination of Karlov will take its place in a catalogue of insults that Putin might -- with an unforeseeable future event -- use to justify some sort of direct military action against the Turks.

Were something like this to occur, or if Putin should act more aggressively than seems likely at this point, Turkey could invoke the Atlantic Charter and call on NATO for support. That would be a risky gamble for Putin, but much less so than in the past. American political, military and diplomatic influence in the region since the end of World War II has probably never been lower, thanks in large part to the policies and incompetence of the Obama administration. The 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, for example, is a shadow of its former self.  

Whether Putin has much to fear from Donald Trump, who has been conciliatory to the Russian leader, and somewhat dismissive of NATO, is a great unknown. Perhaps Russian intelligence has a better idea than most of the rest of us. Not because they put Trump in office as hysterical Democrats would have it, but because they are good at what they do.   

The assassination of Karlov is highly unlikely to lead to war in the short term, but should American influence in the region continue to wane, and with a militarily weak Europe preoccupied with existential internal problems, there remain a world of possibilities open to a man of Putin’s intellect and daring. And he has a good bit of history on his side.  

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