Editor’s Note: Andrew Wood is an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, and a former British ambassador to Moscow.
Wood: We may never know much about the killing of the Russian ambassador
But President Erdogan and President Putin may be inclined to spin their own narratives
The murder of Andrey Karlov at an art exhibition in Ankara, Turkey, is a tragedy.
As yet, we know very little about the motives of his killer, Mevlut Mert Altintas. Chances are, we never will.
But it is at least as possible that he acted as an individual in response to Russian actions in Aleppo as that he killed on the instructions of a wider group.
Both President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin may nevertheless be inclined to structure the assassination into their existing narratives, different though these may be.
The idea of a wider conspiracy, going beyond the actions of a lone gunman, whose ability to get himself, armed, to stand right behind the Russian ambassador in order to shoot him needs explanation, is inherently more convincing to many minds than the proposition that he acted alone.
Related story: The killing of Russia’s ambassador makes a bad situation much worse
Turkey: Alleged terror group in country is to blame?
Erdogan might be predisposed to see the assassin as acting on the behalf of an alleged terror group within Turkey.
Reports are already emerging that Atlintas’ uncle was a former senior executive at a school connected to Fethullah Gulen, the exiled cleric whom Erdogan has blamed for instigating this summer’s attempted coup against his government.
Such a narrative would allow Erdogan both to put further pressure on the United States to extradite Gulen to Turkey, while simultaneously offering justification for clamping down yet more vigorously on his critics.
Russia: Al Nusra behind attack?
For Russia, the attack might well be seen as orchestrated by what Moscow sees as the terrorists it claims to be fighting in Syria.
Some are already claiming that what he shouted may suggest a link to al Nusra, a Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda.
The proposition that what the Russians and their allies have done to Aleppo was itself the reason for their ambassador in Ankara to be killed does not sit well with the Kremlin’s claim to its domestic audience that Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war is as a force for good, that Russia is defending the Syrian people from an illegal revolt against a democratically elected leader.
Ignoring ‘Do not forget Aleppo!’
Russian state media have paid scant attention to the fact that after shooting Karlov, Altintas shouted: “Allahu akbar (God is greatest). Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria!”
Russia is unlikely to change its approach to the Syrian crisis because of their ambassador’s killing. The Kremlin is more likely to want to finish the job, as it would see it. Revenge for the ambassador’s killing would be a natural impulse.
The recent recapturing of Palmyra by ISIS shows how difficult the situation in Syria is, even after the reduction of Aleppo to rubble.
Russia’s calculation nevertheless still seems to be that its goal of helping Bashar al-Assad win can only succeed by continuing – perhaps even escalating – the types of operations we have already seen in the country.
Putin will also have the chance once again to poke the United States in the eye and make the West look weak.
John Kerry promised Sergey Lavrov the moderate rebels being backed by the West in Syria would be made to separate from al Nusra as part of the ceasefire talks in September.
That has not happened, and now a Russian ambassador is dead.
Can two different stories coexist?
But would it not look odd if two world leaders spin different lines and speak to differing versions of history?
Not really. We in the West are not great at understanding the nature of authoritarian leadership buttressed by relentless mass media propaganda.
Related story: Ambassador’s killing comes at nervous time
The recent degree of friendship between Russia and Turkey remains of value to both countries.
Putin has said the killing was a clear provocation aimed at undermining not only the normalization of Russian-Turkish relations, but also the “peace process in Syria.”
Erdogan has concurred, saying “the Russian government and Turkish republic will not fall for provocation.”
Putin’s wider ambition remains for the world order based on transatlantic ties supporting international law to become further eroded.
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Russia can hope in that event to become a “Great Power” dominating its neighbors, whether they like it or not.
Russia’s actions in Syria, and its hope of becoming a lead player in the Middle East fit into that pattern.
Whether it is a realistic endeavor is of course a different matter.