The death of the Russian ambassador in Turkey can be blamed, at least partly, on the Kremlin’s increased willingness to raise the stakes in the Middle East.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during the funeral ceremony of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov, Dec. 22. Photo: RIA Novosti
The assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov is an extraordinary case in the history of Russian diplomacy. There have only been three other similar incidents involving Russian or Soviet diplomatic missions abroad, in 1829, 1923 and 1927.
However, in the nearly 90 years since then, such tragic incidents had never happened despite the challenges of the Second World War and the Cold War. Karlov is the first ambassador of the “New Russia” who was killed during his diplomatic mission. In this context, the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey is very important symbolically and this symbolism goes beyond just a human tragedy.
In fact, what happened in Ankara this week is not a casual event like a traffic accident, a robbery followed by a murder or just an attack from a lone wolf maniac. The assassin made it clear that he was driven by political and religious calculations. Karlov was assassinated “for Aleppo” and “for Syria.” It was an act of revenge “in the name of Allah” for Russia’s military campaign in the Middle East and its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
For a different take read: "The killing of Russia's ambassador in Turkey: A stab in the back"
Of course, some would argue that death results not only from the actions of terrorists. Russia’s politicians, who decided to launch the military campaign in Syria and deploy Russian troops there, should be also held accountable for casualties. But this is not the whole story. One should take into account the fact that any political decisions inevitably affect somebody’s interests and, thus, put into question the reputation of key decision-makers. If the authorities take difficult foreign policy decisions, their first victims usually become diplomats and members of the military.
The American experience
The U.S. understands this very well. Unlike the Soviet Union and Russia, the United States has lost six ambassadors since 1950 as a result of military conflicts and terrorist attacks. Without doubt, such gloomy statistics have their own logic, which is related to the peculiarities of U.S. foreign policy over this period of time. After all, not all adversaries would dare to assassinate diplomats, who have a very specific status and legal immunity in the international community.
If one looks at the profile of those who killed American ambassadors, it will become clear the list of assassins includes the representatives of radical extremist movements in different regions of the world. Among them are Guatemala’s Army of Rebels (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes), Palestine’s terrorist organization Black September, Afghanistan’s Maoist group Settam-e-Melli, and Libya’s Islamic radicals Ansar al-Sharia.
In addition to the radicalism of America’s political opponents, the very nature of U.S. foreign policy also undermined the security of many American diplomats. Having an active and assertive foreign policy has implications. If a country claims the role of “the global cop,” it should be well prepared for the inevitable victims and casualties.
Russia’s new foreign policy comes with trade-offs
Today Russia is experiencing the same phenomenon. In 2014, the Kremlin decided to make its foreign policy more assertive to challenge what the Russian authorities saw as ”American hegemony.” From the very beginning of such a political course, it became clear that Russia’s foreign policy is qualitatively much different than the one of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Russian troops disguised as so-called “polite people” or “little green men” in Crimea as well as the rebels in Eastern Ukraine or Russian aviation and soldiers in Syria — all this indicated that the Kremlin with a great deal of enthusiasm and without any embarrassment turned to very assertive methods of achieving its political goals. This cannot help affecting the security of Russian diplomats.
In contrast, the Soviet Union provided diplomats with much higher levels of security than the United States, partly thanks to three major factors. First, the most radical movement of different countries saw Moscow as an ally rather than an opponent. Second, the Soviet Union conducted much fewer military operations in Third World countries (that are vulnerable to terrorism) than the U.S. Finally, the Soviet diplomats were less inclined to communicate with ordinary people: They didn’t leave their well-equipped and fortified residencies, and were out of touch.
And today there are very interesting changes in this regard: Despite the Kremlin’s criticism of the U.S, Russian foreign policy greatly resembles the American one. Like the United States, Russia is fighting with international terrorism today and don’t offer a coherent ideology that could be attractive for radical rebels in the Middle East or elsewhere.
Russia doesn’t shy away from using military force abroad and at the same time tries to expand its soft power tools — very much like the United States. Ironically, Karlov was assassinated during his speech at a photo exhibition (“Russia Through The Eyes of Turks”), where he was fulfilling a very important “image making” role.
However, in an attempt to withstand America’s leadership and implement its “great power” potential, modern Russia frequently finds itself in a very awkward situation. The scale of its ambitions and the grandeur of its plans don’t match its available resources, infrastructure and the quality of management. In other words, Russia punches above its weight. And the assassination of the ambassador in Turkey indirectly confirms this assumption.
Even the United States, with its bitter experience and the challenge of providing diplomats with security, undertook extraordinary measures to achieve this goal, but could not save the lives of its personnel abroad, as indicated by the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in Benghazi in 2012. What did the Kremlin expect in this case, when it started its campaign in Syria in 2015?
Is it really possible to remain secure if one bombs cities and destroys thousands of people’s fates in a colonial manner? It is hardly likely. Unfortunately, one should admit that the assassination of Karlov is one of the results of Russia’s foreign policy and its operation in Syria. The first casualties came with the explosion of the Russian plane over Egypt shortly after Russia started it military campaign in the Middle East. Then came Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet near the Syrian-Turkish border. And then came Aleppo, with destroyed hospitals and civilian casualties.
Decisiveness and readiness to use military force when other stakeholders are unsure how to act is a good way to fortify one’s positions. After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin implemented his plans in Syria in 2015-2016 and earned the status of the world’s most influential politician. However, today he has to deal with the very routine work of withstanding new – and inevitable - threats.
And it would be a good sign if the assassination of Karlov helped the Kremlin understand that success requires something more than just heavy-handed methods, like launching missiles and bombs and then scoffing at political opponents. Now Moscow badly needs to direct its vast resources to maintain security for diplomats and Russian people in the regions beyond Russia’s borders.
Does modern Russia really have opportunities to resolve this challenge? If not, Russian military and diplomats will keep dying even in the situations when their deaths could be avoided. And this could put into question Russia’s great power status.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.