The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey before press photographers Monday prompted fears the killing could be a flashpoint that unleashes even greater chaos in a volatile region.
But Russia and Turkey have sought to swiftly tamp down tensions over Andrey Karlov’s murder in an Ankara art gallery, out of an apparent concern to maintain a fragile accord between the powers over the Syrian crisis, analysts say.
“Given the tensions in the region and in the relationship between Russia and Turkey, this could easily have sparked off something much more serious,” Andrew Monaghan, a senior researcher at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program, told VICE News.
“Both sides appear to be admirably stable.”
Leaders of both countries – who in recent months have done much to repair ties damaged when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November 2015 – framed the assassination as an attempt to spoil their bilateral relationship, and vowed to redouble efforts to fight terrorism.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in televised comments that the killing of the 62-year-old envoy, whom he knew personally, was “without doubt a provocation aimed at spoiling the normalization of Russo-Turkish relations, and spoiling the Syrian peace process which is being actively pushed by Russia, Turkey, Iran, and others.”
Following a phone call with the Russian leader, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a similar line, saying that the two countries had agreed to greater cooperation in fighting terrorism. Both agreed to establish a joint commission to investigate the assassination, and are proceeding with a scheduled trilateral meeting of foreign and defense ministers with Iran in Moscow Tuesday despite the killing.
“Quite clearly, Turkey and Russia are keen not to let this incident rupture the unfolding thaw in relations,” Fadi Hakura, a Turkey analyst at Chatham House, told VICE News.
Russia and Turkey are behind the Aleppo ceasefire deal
Last week Moscow and Ankara – both key power brokers in the Syrian conflict – negotiated a cease-fire to enable the evacuation of rebel-held neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo as Syrian-allied forces closed in on a decisive victory, and were “keen to preserve that progress,” Hakura said.
Although they back opposing sides in the civil war – Russia as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s key ally, Turkey having long sought his removal – the two have been able to come to a loose agreement in pursuit of their strategic goals in the conflict.
Turkey’s primary goal has been to secure its border along northern Syria, and checkmate Syrian Kurdish aspirations for a contiguous autonomous zone in the area. Turkish forces were operating in northern Syria in pursuit of these ends with Russia’s “tacit understanding,” Hakura said.
Keir Giles, a Russia expert at Chatham House, told VICE News that Russia’s “fairly measured and sober response so far” – in stark contrast to its bellicose reaction over the warplane incident – could be because Russia is now in a much stronger position in terms of its foreign policy goals in Syria.
“Now, they’ve got Turkey where they want them,” he said. “At the moment, everything is going Russia’s way.”
Another key difference from the 2015 dispute was that the gunman – although an off-duty police officer – did not appear to have been acting on behalf of the Turkish state, said Giles. This has allowed pro-government voices on both sides to point the finger at third parties for the killing.
Al-Jazeera has reported that Turkish officials are investigating the assassin’s possible ties to the banned movement led by self-exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Ankara of having orchestrated a failed coup in July. The Independent reported that pro-government Turkish newspapers had also suggested the killing was a CIA plot carried out by Gulenists, while Russian politicians – including Kremlin senator Frantz Klintsevich – have also accused NATO powers of possible involvement.
“If Turkey wants to point to the Gulenists – and the gunman has the right kind of track record and career history for doing that – and if Russia wants to say ‘This is inspired by the U.S. or evil external actors who want to disrupt all the good we’re doing in Syria,’ then there is a common interest in following that line,” said Giles.
But despite their current united front, there was always potential for the dispute to escalate, particularly if investigators find fault on the Turkish side, said Monaghan. “It’s a complex and difficult relationship,” he said. “If it turns out from the investigation that the Turks could have done more to prevent this, then clearly it’s going to be a dramatic situation.”