Today, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was giving a speech at the opening ceremony of a photo exhibit when an assailant, who has since been identified as a standing police officer, opened fire, killing Karlov. Karlov had served in his ambassadorial role to Turkey since July 2013. He previously served as Russia’s ambassador to North Korea.
There are two relevant bits here. First, Russian politics.
I don’t mean to sound trite here, but politics in Russia are nothing like politics in the United States. In the United States there are dozens of routes to political power. The Clintons came out of local government. The Bushes out of business. Carter out of agriculture. Obama out of academia. Reagan out of Hollywood. An economically rich geography fosters a strong civil society which provides myriad paths to political power.
That’s not how things fly in Russia. The geography and political system are so hostile there is only one way to national leadership: first be a senior intelligence officer. These folks are the only ones who have a sufficiently accurate and complete view of the country that they can even attempt a national role. This makes Russia’s leadership much more intelligent and competent than the American leadership, but it also makes the Russian leadership thin and brittle. (Technically, Karlov was a career diplomat, but mere functionaries aren’t appointed ambassador to countries as politically prickly and strategically sensitive as North Korea.)
The American political class probably has around two million people. The Russian political class has but 200. With the death of Karlov they have one less. This would be bad enough under normal circumstances, but circumstances in Russia are far from normal.
Red Square in Moscow, Russia
Between the Soviet breakup and the subsequent collapse of the Russian healthcare system, the Russian population is one of the fastest aging and most diseased in the world. By 2050 the Russian population will have shrunk by one-quarter, with ethnic Russians no longer the majority. For a country where oppression of minorities is the cultural equivalent of baseball, this will prove a swampy problem.
Back to the issue of the moment, replacing skilled diplomats is hard enough. Skill sets like Karlov’s which include language competency in Russian, English, Korean and Turkish are hard to develop. Factor in Russia’s demographic hollowing out and Karlov is utterly irreplaceable.
The second issue regards Russia’s relationship with Turkey.
According to initial reports, Karlov’s assassin shouted condemnations of Russia’s policy in Syria in general and Aleppo in specific. It was just the sort of high-profile action that puts a spotlight on political policies and inspires militants of various stripes. (Imagine the fallout had a Mountie killed the American ambassador to Canada during the Iraq War.)
As regards the Turks, Turkey has been in a bit of a geopolitical deepfreeze since its catastrophic defeat in World War One. For most of the time since, the Turks farmed out control of their foreign policy to the United States in exchange for economic access and strategic cover. Of late the Turkish government has begun emerging from its self-imposed shell and started to form opinions as to what its independent strategic posture should be.
At first Ankara assumed that everyone in its neighborhood would do whatever it wanted because Turkey is so inherently awesome. This included expectations that the Israelis would pay for a fully independent Palestinian state, that revolutionary Egypt would model its government after Turkey’s ruling party, that Baghdad would subjugate its foreign and civil policy to Turkish norms, that the Syrian government would overthrow itself, and that U.S. troops would deploy to Syria to carry out Turkish desires. Needless to say, things didn’t exactly work out as the Turks predicted.
Instead, Turkey found itself in a panicked argument with the Russians when a Turkish air defense battery shot down a Russian jet operating in Syria. After an initial bout of Turkish bombast, Ankara was faced with the harsh reality that they were diplomatically out of practice, utterly bereft of meaningful allies, and on the verge of a very real war with the Russians.
Enter Karlov, who has a record of successfully manipulating people as testy as North Korea’s Kim Il Sung. The result was Turkey’s ignoble Karlov-managed climbdown. Part of that climbdown was admitting (unofficially) that the Russians owned Syria and any meaningful Turkish policy there required Russian sign-off. After all, the Russians were willing to bomb anyone they thought needed bombing, and the Turks were not.
Karlov’s assassination drags Turkey’s capitulation, Turkey’s (non-)position in the Syrian war, and the broader Turkish-Russian relationship all back into the spotlight. All these things and more are now back at the top of the Turks’ internal to-debate list. It also creates a rare window. With Russia’s man in Turkey gone, the Turks have a moment to have these debates with less outside interference.
Which way will the Turks go? No idea. The Balkans hold more economic opportunity but expansion there would clash with Europe. The Caucasus hold more cultural opportunity but expansion there would clash with Russia. Syria holds more immediate military and political opportunity but expansion there means wading into a thankless civil war.
Turkey’s neighborhood is messy. For 70 years, Turkey’s quiescence has kept the region’s biggest and most capable power from participating. Don’t bet on that continuing.