Even in the final weeks of the year, 2016 is proving to be the year of Russia. The latest twist, however, comes wrapped in tragedy. In the evening of Dec. 19 local time, an off-duty police officer opened fire on the Russian ambassador to Turkey while he was making a speech at an art exhibition in the Turkish capital, Ankara. The assassination has ignited dire warnings in the notoriously over-reactive twittersphere of a Franz Ferdinand moment. “Was this it?” panicked pundits asked. Could Andrei Karlov’s death trigger, as did the killing of the Austro-Hungarian archduke in 1914, a domino effect leading to another global conflict?
Instead, within hours, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had issued statements condemning the attack and vowing that it would not derail the reset of Turkish-Russian relations. Indeed, Erdogan was particularly hyperbolic in his response.
“I believe this is an attack on Turkey, the Turkish state and the Turkish people, and also a clear provocation to Turkish-Russian relations,” he said. “I am sure our Russian friends also see this fact.”
Putin used the opportunity to remind people that the attacker was clearly aiming to undermine negotiations to end the Syrian conflict and had acted on behalf of terrorists intent on toppling the Syrian regime.
He wasn’t wrong. The attacker, who Turkish officials say had posed as a member of the ambassador’s security detail, had shouted revenge for Aleppo while carrying out the killing, invoked Allahu Akbar, and held up his index finger, a symbolic gesture associated with Islamic extremists.
The incident, tragic though it was, offered a gift to Putin. In a flurry of gunfire, Turkey now finds itself on its back foot. The rebel groups it supports in the fight against the Syrian regime have now become implicated in the murder of a Russian diplomat. The regime’s stunning victory in Aleppo, with the help of Russian airstrikes, has dramatically shifted the dynamics of the Syrian civil war and forced those who called for regime change, of which Turkey was the most vocal advocate, to consider the very real possibility that the regime will not only survive but re-establish itself as the dominant player.
The assassination could not have come at a worse time for Erdogan. While 2016 has been a good one for Putin, for Turkey it has proven increasingly traumatic. Turks have suffered through the worst spate of terrorist attacks in recent memory; they have watched helplessly as the civil war against Kurdish separatists has resumed; their savings have plummeted as Turkey’s currency collapses, pushing its economy to the brink; they have survived a violent coup attempt and a brutal emergency rule in its aftermath that has gutted Turkey’s institutions.
Erdogan cannot afford another confrontation with his Black Sea neighbour. The last time that happened, in November 2015 after a Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian bomber the Turks claimed had strayed into its airspace from Syria, Russia proved it can cause havoc in Turkey if it is so inclined. Putin responded by slapping sanctions on Turkey, eviscerating its tourism industry, which is heavily reliant on Russian package tours. Bans on Turkish fruit and poultry exports and a freeze on Turkish-run construction projects in Russia also cut deeply into Turkey’s key economic sectors.
The pain was so severe that Erdogan, a notoriously unrepentant autocrat, was forced to apologize, blaming the downing of the Russian plane on a rogue pilot loyal to his archenemy, Fethullah Gülen. Relations with Russia began to thaw and Turkey’s dying economy was placed back on life support with an influx of Russian capital.
The coming year looks even less promising for Erdogan. As the U.S. comes to terms with a new government led by the seemingly Putin-friendly Donald Trump, Turkey must face the harsh reality of an ever more ascendant Russia. The Russians will be in a strong position to negotiate an end to the Syrian war, which will maintain Bashar al-Assad’s presidency. Erdogan, a political survivalist, will find himself under pressure to align himself with the Russians.
This is the irony of the assassination of Karlov: rather than a Franz Ferdinand moment, it has led to a situation in which Turkey and Russia are set to deepen their relationship. The new world order is taking shape, and it is paved in a different red, white and blue than what we have grown accustomed to over the past century. It is draped in the tricolour of the Russian flag.