The corpse of Russia’s ambassador Andrey Karlov arrives in Moscow, 20 December. (c) Valery Sharifullin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.
The assassination of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara is not just an individual crime and tragedy, it may also be a symptom of a wider trend. Western doomsayers have rushed to talk about Vladimir Putin as “winning” in 2016. In its annual crass celebration of personalism (and eager exercise in clickbait), Forbes magazine again named him their “Man of the Year”. But after a year or two of circling, Putin’s vultures may be coming home to roost.
The assassination of Karlov was predictably and prematurely cast as somewhere between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi in 2012 — the harbinger of global war or domestic recrimination, respectively. It certainly is not the former.
Turkey hurriedly framed the murder as another example of the barbarism of their one-size-fits-all scapegoat, the Gülenist movement. Equally quickly, Russia was willing to accept the assassination as a provocation aimed at damaging relations between Moscow and Ankara (and will likely visit its vengeance on someone soon enough).
The assassination of Karlov fits into a trend that suggests that Moscow’s victories are often Pyrrhic and increasingly pose threats to itself
Russia and Turkey are often described as being on opposite sides in the war in Syria. But this is ultimately a multi-vector and multi-party conflict in which an emerging axis of authoritarianisms (Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey) can find common ground at least for the moment, in the same spirit of Molotov-Ribbentrop or, indeed, Yalta. All have different visions of the Middle East, but all are also aware that Islamic State and the US are, in very different ways, preventing them from being able to bring their visions about. For now, these authoritarian actors can agree on certain tactical points and leave the strategic disagreements for the future.
However, in its wider context, the assassination of Karlov fits into a trend that suggests that Moscow’s victories are often pyrrhic and increasingly pose threats to itself. The recriminations against Hillary Clinton that followed the 2012 Benghazi incident will hardly be repeated in Moscow. First, there is no entrenched opposition in Russia to orchestrate them, but second, there is a quiet appreciation of the extent to which the killing represents policy over-reach, and how the disastrous implications of intervention abroad may begin to spread.
Putin appears, after all, committed to breaking the post-1945 international order which, not wholly without reason, he sees as essentially a system created by the west in the west’s interests. The Russian president sees the proper order as being closer to the 19th century model — when might made right, when states had only as much sovereignty as they could assert and defend, and when great powers had spheres of interest, empires in principle and often in name.
It is easy to believe Russian machinations far more effective than they really are, especially as metropolitan elites grapple with a west-spanning legitimacy crisis
Much of Putin’s efforts abroad have thus gone into generating chaos and putting pressure on existing alliances and institutions he considers problematic. He clearly sees NATO as a genuine potential military threat. As a consensual federation based on laws and equality, the European Union is a normative challenge to Russia’s empire-building in the “Near Abroad”.
Putin’s successes, however, have been tempered with failures. In many ways, NATO is stronger than ever, and may even embrace Sweden and Finland before too long. Meanwhile, while the EU is in crisis, it remained united enough to extend its sanctions against Russia for another six months. Besides, how far can Moscow claim the credit for that EU crisis to begin with?
Finding a common language. Putin meets Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul, 2012. CC-by-4.0: Presidential Press Service / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.
It is easy to believe that Russian machinations are far more effective than they really are, especially as metropolitan elites grapple with a legitimacy crisis that spans the west. It is far more comfortable to blame Putin than to accept that substantial proportions of your voters do not trust you or the system in general, and are thus naturally susceptible to populism, whether or not Russia’s state-owned RT and Sputnik propaganda networks are cheering this on from the wings.
Yet consider the Newtonian nature of geopolitics, how each action appears to have its equal and opposite reaction. The carnage in Syria is not only horrifying western opinion, it is galvanising a wider international backlash. Before too long, Russia may well find itself the “Greater Satan” next to the American “Great Satan”. Russian diplomats, airlines, tourists, companies and allies may find themselves routinely threatened in a way the US has had to deal with for decades.
Meanwhile, Russian forces have been so successful in Syria that they are stuck there for the foreseeable future. Back in March 2016, Putin announced a scale-down of Russian commitments to Syria following the success of the initial intervention. It could be that this was just spin, but according to military sources in Moscow, he probably actually changed his mind.
Russian forces have been so successful in Syria that they are stuck there for the foreseeable future
For a moment, Putin looked as if he was going to pull off the holy grail of interventionism — the quick operation that does not succumb to mission creep. But instead, the Syria campaign crept until it strode, and now not only are there Russian bombers and helicopters in Syrian skies, there are Russian ships and submarines off its coast, and Russian special forces and (pseudo-) mercenaries leading its offensives.
Just as in Ukraine’s Donbas region, military success and policy failure have combined to ensure Moscow is stuck with an ongoing and open-ended commitment which will not only drain lives and money long after the initial targets have been accomplished, but also increasingly come at a political cost.
In the US, the impending Trump presidency looks like a Russia-friendly one for now (especially if Rex Tillerson is confirmed as the new Secretary of State), but new presidential honeymoons with the Kremlin are traditional.
This may be a particularly brazen and unusual honeymoon (in keeping with the president-elect), but it is clear that the Russians themselves have serious qualms about the long-term prospects. There are numerous landmines strewn along the way for US-Russian relations, and Trump himself a sufficiently unpredictable and combustible figure in his own right. As Syrian government forces with Russian support broke through opposition defences in Aleppo, ISIS forces overran much of the ancient desert city of Palmyra. CC-by-4.0: Mil.ru / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved. Most fundamentally, when it comes to US-Russian relations, Moscow has (much it may complain about being hard-done-by) actually benefited greatly from the rules and etiquette of the same international order it has been undermining.
Russia has buzzed US ships, hacked US computers, invaded US friends Georgia and Ukraine, smeared US politicians and officials, harassed a US diplomat and presented the United States as everything from imperialist to corrupt.
The US, in response, has largely confined itself to verbal admonishment, with the exception of Russia's seizure of Crimea and war in the Donbas, which even so was met with relatively limited sanctions. Washington is no cloister of saints and martyrs, but it does play largely by the rules.
Now imagine a United States that felt willing to play by Moscow rules. Imagine a United States that regarded it as right and proper to use its massive political, economic, military and soft power assets aggressively and recklessly to punish Russia, or simply to destabilise Russia’s political system.
There are already people in Washington who have wanted to see Putin’s claims of American efforts to undermine the Russian system become a self-fulfilling prophecy
There are already people in Washington who have wanted to see Putin’s claims of American efforts to undermine the Russian system become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is at least as much a sense that this is not how a mature, modern power operates that has kept the Americans in check, as any fears about the consequences. If Putin empowers these “democratic imperialists” then he has nobody to blame but himself.
The late Ambassador Karlov, apparently a sober and conscientious professional diplomat, was a one-off victim of an individual’s callous political murder. Yet while anyone can be the innocent victim of terror – consider the twelve shoppers and passers-by murdered the same day in a Berlin Christmas market – Karlov was also the victim of a callous political worldview that increasingly has seen Russia weaponise chaos as a geopolitical instrument without considering just how hard this weapon is to control. As Leonid Bershidsky puts it: “ambassadors are assassinated because they represent their countries.”
Putin’s “wins” have largely been destructive and destabilising, and 2017 is likely to see more consequences visited increasingly upon Russia.
As the Islamic State is battered out of Mosul and may also be forced from Palmyra and Raqqa, more and more fighters from Russia, Central Asia and the North Caucasus are likely to head home. Trump’s America may prove a far less restrained interlocutor and even antagonist, especially for a Russia which has little to offer when geopolitics meets “The Art of the Deal”.
And if the European Union fragments further, Moscow might discover how far it acted to restrain Poland’s anti-Russian stance, let alone what could happen if a post-Merkel Germany actually comes to regard Russia as a rival and a threat.
The vultures, after all, were bred in Moscow, and have been roosting for some time in the Kremlin's towers.