In the pictures taken immediately before the assassination, the murderer of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey is shown standing directly behind him adopting the posture of a bodyguard. And then, right in front of the cameras set up in a gallery for the opening of a photographic exhibition, he shoots. What ensues is, deliberately one assumes, pure Hollywood, a killing designed for maximum impact. The grotesque act and its aftermath are captured in video footage and still images that have a cinematic, chilling, compelling quality.
Andrei Karlov, Moscow’s ambassador to the Turkish capital Ankara, was confirmed dead by Russia’s Foreign Ministry shortly afterwards. The killer has been named as Mevlut Mert Altintas, an off-duty Turkish police officer. He said in shouts as his victim lay dying that he had acted in revenge for Russian involvement in Syria. The Turkish government has said he has been “neutralised,” which may mean either killed or captured.
It is understandable after a year of such turmoil and of myriad unprecedented outcomes that people are more than a little jumpy about this shooting. Along with the pictures being flashed around the internet (in your timeline whether you wanted it or not) went instant analysis comparing what has just happened to the assassination that sparked the industrialised mass slaughter of the First World War.
But the Sarajevo comparison simply makes no sense whatsoever. In August 1914 the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, set off a chain of events that pulled in Russia in defence of its ally Serbia, when Austria-Hungary, supported by Germany, declared war on Serbia.
Other than today’s murder and the murder of the Archduke happening in very roughly the same part of the world – but actually they took place 1000 miles apart – there are few parallels.
Russia and Turkey have been rebuilding their relationship this year and are almost allies again. In August, President Erdogan travelled to St. Petersburg to meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both promised to restore relations, which had been damaged when Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet in November 2015 over Syria. The Russians introduced a boycott that denied Turkey the trade of Russian tourists. At St Petersburg the pair shook hands and set about scrapping sanctions.
The Turkish government had originally been convinced that Assad of Syria was done for when the rebellion against him began and predicated its policy on an expectation that that he would fall. Meanwhile, the Russians looked for a chance to save their ally Assad, and were gifted it by Western weakness in 2012 and 2013. When Assad duly survived, and with Russia angry over Turkey’s then closeness to the West (it is a member of Nato and in talks with the EU), the events of the summer cleared the way for a change in Erdogan’s policy.
Following the coup attempt in Turkey this summer, Putin was straight on the phone to Erdogan offering him good wishes and support. Since then, the pair have become perfectly aligned on the question of clamping down on dissent, with Erdogan purging the Turkish armed forces and civic institutions. Tonight the Russians have issued a statement saying that they have been assured by Erdogan’s officials that there will be a full investigation and punishment for the perpetrators. The Turkish government has condemned an act of terrorism.
The assassination is certainly a shocking, grave development. Not least because a diplomat lies dead and international norms have been violated. Still, the murder seems more likely to push Erdogan and Putin even closer together, giving a further impetus to the former’s crackdown against terrorists and internal opponents, and ammunition to the latter as he builds alliances and divides the West. It is certainly a dark day, as it will pull Turkey ever more into the orbit of Russia and Putin, but it is not the start of a Third World War.