By J.R. Jameson
Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov was shot multiple times in the back Dec. 19 in Ankara, Turkey, by Mert Atlintas, a member of Turkey’s Riot Police Squad. The carefully constructed assassination of the head of the Russian diplomatic enclave to Turkey ended, as planned, with the loss of the assassin's own life. Historically, acts of this nature have led to war, but cooler heads seem to be prevailing and there have been no military escalations between Russia and Turkey. However, benevolence is probably the least likely motivator here. Nothing, especially geopolitics, operates in a vacuum. So, let’s look at this incident in context and more importantly what each player wants out of the current geopolitical climate.
That the assassin was able to walk up behind the ambassador of a foreign country, suggests that this was most likely not an attack by an inspired lone-wolf, but rather part of a more intricate plot. And who is pulling the strings is the most important piece. Whether those in the plot were Jihadist or in fact part of the Gulen movement, remains to be seen.
If Atlinas was a radicalized member of the security forces, it would show how weak the security forces in Turkey have become and how much reach the Jihadis have. Jihadists, most noticeably ISIS, have been seeking to create greater division between Russia and Turkey, two powers heavily involved in the Middle East and two countries who can help to play king maker in the region. If in fact the Gulen movement is behind it, it could create a further escalation of tensions between the US and Turkey, which is exactly what the hard-core fundamentalists want.
Turkey, has perhaps the most complicated end game to figure out. The assassination of a major power’s ambassador in their capital will require Turkey to enhance its security protocols around foreign dignitaries, which is something that works in President Erdogan’s favor right now. After the failed coup this summer by Gulen supporters, Erdogan has greatly expanded his own authoritarian control over the country. Using the failed coup to purge the security apparatus and jail reporters, Erdogan will now look to further tighten control over foreign enclaves in his country and use increased security measures as a reason to keep better tabs on them.
While Turkey has the second largest military in NATO, it has long felt like the red-headed step child sitting outside the game on the European continent. Erdogan will look to blame this attack on the Gulen movement and further press the US for the extradition of its leader, Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in the US since 1999 in self-imposed exile.
As embarrassing as the assassination is for Turkey, it allows Erdogan to better consolidate power and pit the US and other NATO nations against Russian and Iranian interests in the region. Turkey’s end game goals are preventing the spread of Kurdish forces and regaining influence in its former Ottoman Empire domains.
While the rest of the world is playing geopolitics like a game of checkers, Putin has been playing it as a game of chess. For Russia, having an ambassador killed in a host nation’s capital opens up numerous strategies for helping to reclaim its role as a superpower, not just a regional power. Putin will use the death of Karlov to preemptively strike against anything he classifies as a terrorist target, most likely in Chechnya. Putin will also use this attack to create some leverage in pitting Turkey against the US.
In the chess game between our two countries, Putin has shown he will use whatever is needed to weaken the US position in the world. Rest assured that Russian intelligence services will only serve to echo the call that Gulen and his movement were who helped to orchestrate the attack, if only to keep tensions between the US and Turkey as high as possible. Putin sees and understands the strategic importance of Turkey to the US and NATO. Turkey is the only US ally in the region that could legitimately keep the Middle East in check and prevent problems there from spilling over into Europe.
Indeed, Russia has been capitalizing on this discord for some time already and will use this travesty to help cement the negotiations of selling Turkey the S-400 missile system. This deal has already sparked concerns in NATO over compatibility issues as well as ramifications about Turkey’s contribution to the alliance. Putin, as usual, is moves ahead of everyone and will capitalize on this to further create discord in NATO, which will allow him to continue his plans for asserting influence over Eastern Europe.
In today’s globalized society, we are actually watching the geopolitical game play out in real time, something that was once only evaluated by historians. Geopolitics, at its basest form, is a chess game with very high stakes. In this game, there are masters, such as Putin, and there are amateurs, such as Erdogan; a master of this game will always find a way to make being in a defensive position work for them. And Russia has always played a good defensive game.