The assassination on Monday of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey at an art gallery in Ankara is unlikely to fracture relations between the two countries as they work to improve their tumultuous relationship, analysts said.
“On the contrary, both Russia and Turkey will point to the murder as reason why they should cooperate more closely in fighting terrorism,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk firm Eurasia Group, told Business Insider on Monday.
“Erdogan will surely express great regret to the Russian, and acknowledge that Turkey must do more in their domestic security environment,” Bremmer said, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “That means more crackdowns at home, but not a sudden blowup with Moscow.”
The death of the ambassador, Andrey Karlov, immediately prompted comparisons to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 that led Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, which ultimately sparked World War I.
But statements released by Russian and Turkish officials in the aftermath of Karlov’s death suggested Moscow and Ankara were determined not to let the incident derail their rapprochement.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said in a statement that the government would not allow the assassination to harm Russian-Turkish relations.
Erdogan echoed Yildirim’s sentiment, calling the attack “provocation aimed at damaging Turkey’s normalization of ties with Russia. He said that Turkey and Russia will jointly investigate the assassination, reiterating that “intense cooperation with Russia” over Aleppo was “helping to save lives.”
“I call out to those who are trying to break this relationship,” Erdogan continued, “Your expectations are wasted.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, called the assassination an attempt to “undermine” Russia-Turkey ties and derail Moscow’s attempts to find, with Iran and Turkey, a solution for the Syria crisis.
The Kremlin, which declared the assassination a terrorist attack, said talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, over Syria would take place as planned in Moscow on Tuesday.
“Ankara and Moscow will likely seek to avoid a diplomatic crisis over Karlov’s assassination,” said Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Washington, DC-based think tank Foundation for Defence of Democracies. “Russia will, however, likely step up military actions in Syria and seek revenge against those connected with the assassin.”
The Turkish government, meanwhile, was apparently preparing to blame a domestic opposition movement, known as the Gulenists, for the attack. The movement is led by Turkish preacher Fetullah Gulen, who has lived in exile in the US since 1999.
The mayor of Ankara alleged in a tweet shortly after the attack that the gunman was a Gulenist and that his declarations about Aleppo were merely a distraction — a narrative that was repeated and expanded upon by Turkish media in the aftermath of the assassination. A senior Turkish senior official later told Reuters that Ankara’s investigation will focus on the gunman’s links to the Gulen network.
Turkish-Russian relations had been precarious but improving since Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015.
Though they are on opposite sides of the war in Syria, with Turkey supporting the opposition and Russia supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish and Russian officials managed to broker a deal last week that resulted in a cease-fire and the evacuation of civilians and fighters from rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
Michael Koplow, a Middle East analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, said that he thinks Karlov’s assassination “is likely to bring Russia and Turkey closer together.”
“Neither side has an incentive to escalate things,” Koplow said. “I anticipate this leading to a joint stand against terrorism and greater coordination on Syria.”
That is especially true, Koplow said, given Turkey’s dependence on Russian energy and tourism, and the current tensions between Turkey and the West over its poor human-rights record and censorship of the press following a failed coup attempt in July. Turkey’s government has also blamed Gulen in the failed coup attempt.
Erdogan’s reluctance to sign on to certain European Union membership requirements and his increasingly authoritarian leadership over Turkey have also sparked concern among European leaders that he is not committed to a Western conception of human rights and civil liberties.
NATO has also expressed concern over Erdogan’s purging of thousands of Turkish civil servants — as well as military personnel, police officers, academics, and teachers — from their positions on suspicion that they were associated with the coup attempt.
“Ankara is going to use this as an opportunity to embrace Russia tighter,” Koplow said. “The analogy to WWI ignores the fact that there was a host of incentives, including entangling alliances and multiple competing great powers, that made war a more obvious choice for the parties involved. That is not the case here, particularly given that Turkey is hardly a proxy for the West these days despite its NATO membership.”
Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert on Russian military affairs at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said that “a lot will depend on how the Russian government chooses to play it.”
“My initial guess is that the two countries will pledge to work together against terrorism,” Gorenburg told Business Insider on Monday. “But we will see soon enough.”
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