What Lies Ahead After the Assassination of Russia's Ambassador to Turkey

Turkish FM Cavusoglu and Russia's Lavrov
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu lay flowers in front of a photo of Russia's ambassador to Turkey, who was killed in Ankara, before their talks in Moscow on December 20, 2016. A Turkish policeman crying 'Aleppo' and 'Allahu Akbar' shot dead Russia's ambassador to Turkey in Ankara on December 19, prompting a vow from President Vladimir Putin to step up the fight against 'terrorism.' Maxim Shemetov/AFP/Getty

Tragedy struck once again in Turkey on Monday, this time targeting the Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov at an art exhibit. His assassin was a Turkish police officer, who shot the ambassador multiple times as he was delivering a speech.

Video footage suggests that the assassin had drawn no suspicion as he was waiting calmly behind the ambassador before the attack—this is supported by the revelation that he used his police badge to get past the security checkpoint at the entrance of the exhibit.

The footage also shows the assassin saying a religious verse in Arabic: a pledge for jihad for Muhammed moments after the attack. He also said in Turkish: "Don't forget Aleppo, don't forget Syria. Until our towns are safe, you will not taste safety. Only death will take me away from here. Everyone who played a role in this cruelty will pay."

The attack comes amid heightened feelings of solidarity with Aleppo in Turkey, especially among religious Turks, who have led sporadic protests over the past week. As such, while it is possible that the assassin had some connections to existing extremist organizations and jihadist networks, it is not far-fetched that the 22-year-old riot policeman operated on his own.

Either scenario would be a significant deterioration of the security situation in a country that has endured major attacks from the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and the PKK and its affiliates, as well a coup attempt over the past year. If a terrorist organization supported the attack, it would highlight the ability of such organizations to infiltrate or "turn" members of the Turkish police force.

If the assassin acted alone, it may be the first example of an entirely new problem for the country to deal with. It is much harder to predict and prevent lone-wolf attacks. It could also present additional challenges to the Turkish government, which has increasingly employed a religious narrative to rally public support after the coup attempt in July.

Impact on Turkey-Russia relations

Until the rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow in June this year, Turkish-Russian relations were at a historic low after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane for violating its airspace in November 2015. Over the last few months, the sides have been able to develop a close working relationship in Syria, which nonetheless remains precarious as there are clear areas where the interests of the two countries diverge. This cooperation has allowed Ankara to initiate Operation Euphrates Shield—Turkey's military operation in Syria—free of harassment from Russian air defenses. The sides are also closely collaborating on securing a ceasefire and evacuating east Aleppo, which may be one of the only viable ways of relieving the humanitarian crisis going on in the city.

Fortunately, the relationship may not suffer a major blow, as the presidents of both countries have characterized the assassination as an act of provocation aimed at disrupting the Turkish-Russian relationship. To support this claim, the Turkish media has underlined that the assassination occurred right before tripartite meetings between the Turkish, Russian, and Iranian foreign ministers in Moscow.

It appears that Russia and Turkey will be cooperating extensively in the following days. President Erdogan suggested that both sides lead a joint investigation of the assassination, upon request from the Russian government. Both capitals have expressed a willingness to collaborate closer in countering extremism. Security measures for the Russian diplomatic mission will also be increased to prevent future attacks.

Indeed, Turkish authorities will likely increase the security measures they provide to foreign diplomatic missions—which also present attractive targets to returning foreign fighters.

Furthermore, Ankara could conclude that the assassination necessitates an even more strenuous approach to the ongoing purges of Turkish civil servants and security forces that began in response to the coup attempt.

While this new threat certainly warrants that the government gets its house in order, a new wave of crackdowns may further complicate the country's relations with the European Union, which has remained critical of the ongoing purges. In turn, instead of driving a wedge between Russia and Turkey, the assassination may serve to bring them even closer.

Doruk Ergun is a security analyst at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).