Tuesday was supposed to be a day of triumph for Russian diplomacy, when Russia aimed to replace the United States as the indispensable power in the Middle East. Instead, it became a day of mourning, with a Turkish honor guard in Ankara loading the flag-draped coffin of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov onto a Moscow-bound plane.
Karlov, who was assassinated in an Ankara art gallery Monday evening, had been given the delicate mission of patching up relations after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane last year. On Tuesday, Karlov’s efforts were to be crowned by a meeting in Moscow of the foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran — and the rise of a new power constellation in the Middle East.
Those talks went ahead despite his death. Afterward, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared the three-country format “the most effective” in resolving the Syrian conflict, since his talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had run aground. Last week, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, accused Russia and Iran of bearing responsibility for “atrocities” committed during the Syrian government’s assault on the city of Aleppo.
With a lame-duck administration in the White House for the next month, Russia is using territorial gains in Syria to seize the diplomatic initiative as well. Because the Syrian government’s retaking of Aleppo has happened so fast, Lavrov agreed to move up the Moscow meeting with his Turkish and Iranian colleagues by a week.
That’s why the reaction to Karlov’s murder — by an off-duty Turkish policeman who shouted about avenging the carnage in Aleppo before being shot to death himself — was practically unanimous in Moscow. The official line from Russian President Vladimir Putin on down was that the assassination in Ankara was a “provocation” meant to derail the talks.
When Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane along the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015, Putin’s response was fast and furious. Diplomatic and economic relations were put on hold until last summer, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally issued an apology.
On Monday, the blame in Moscow for the ambassador’s killing was assigned to unnamed forces that are opposed to Russia and Turkey’s rapprochement. Putin talked on the phone with Erdogan, who agreed to let in a team of Russian investigators.
Putin needs Erdogan, and Erdogan needs Putin. The two leaders are facing isolation from traditional partners because of their policies against domestic opponents and militant nostalgia for bygone empires. What to do about Syria — once a bone of contention between Russia and Turkey — has become an opportunity for both countries to act as power brokers in a global crisis.
The importance of that relationship is clear from the number of contacts the two countries have had since Erdogan’s conciliatory visit to Russia back in August. In the space of the past month, Putin has been on the phone with Erdogan half a dozen times, and the Turkish leader is expected to travel to Russia again in January.
Just a little more than a year ago, Putin was accusing Erdogan of “a stab in the back” and estimated ISIS oil sales via Turkey in the hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars.
Now, responsibility for Karlov’s assassination is being attributed to powers farther afield.
“Murder of our ambassador is continuation of information war against Russia. Media hysteria created conditions for it. Info attacks lead to terrorist attacks,” Russian senator Alexei Pushkov tweeted on Tuesday.
Russian nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who happens to hold a degree in Turkish studies, didn’t shy away from blaming the West directly.
“Turkey is turning away from the West. That’s disadvantageous for certain Western intelligence agencies,” Zhirinovsky said on state television Monday night.
The European Union and NATO are afraid that Russia will join forces with Iran and Turkey, he said, presenting the West with a formidable counterweight. So far, Karlov’s efforts to that end have not been in vain.