A growing geopolitical role comes at a price in blood, as Russia was forcefully reminded on Monday when its ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was shot in an Ankara art gallery. Russia might not be paying that price had it kept out of the Syrian conflict but, paradoxically, it has now joined the West in footing this bill.
In 2012, when Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was killed by a mob in Benghazi, Russian propaganda outlets lectured the U.S. for meddling in the Middle East. “It was on Washington’s urging that NATO intervened in the conflict in Libya,” Russian state television editorialized. “But warnings that sooner or later this would produce a boomerang effect were drowned out by sloganeering about a victory for democracy in totalitarian countries.”
After Karlov’s murder, Russia got a taste of the same medicine from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who tweeted: “1/2 Russia has been responsible for horrendous violations of human rights & the murder of thousands innocent people in Syria & Ukraine.”
He then added in a follow-up that this was “no excuse” for killing the ambassador.
Callous as such statements are, there is some truth to them. Ambassadors are assassinated because they represent their countries, and they don’t do it in the same abstract way as innocent victims of attacks like the one in Berlin on Monday night. Diplomats are conduits for their nations’ policies. That sets them up as targets for those who want to make a statement against those policies.
Between 1968 and 1979, five U.S. ambassadors were killed in the line of duty, three of them in the Middle East, one in Cyprus and one in Guatemala — both countries where the U.S. was accused of meddling. Turkey has a long list of diplomats, including four ambassadors, assassinated between 1973 and 1994 by Armenian militant organizations as revenge for the genocide of Armenians 100 years ago, which Turkey won’t recognize to this day. In 1981, France lost its ambassador in Beirut as revenge for France’s role in the Lebanese civil war. The list goes on, and it includes dozens of lower-ranking diplomats.
Russia has been extraordinarily lucky in this respect. In 1829, its ambassador in Tehran, one of Russia’s most revered authors, Alexander Griboedov was killed in a riot against Russia’s outsized influence and perceived arrogance after it won a war against Persia; to atone, the Shah sent the Rusian czar an enormous diamond. After that, Russian ambassadors were only killed by White Russian officers as revenge for the Bolshevik takeover of power. Waclaw Worowski was shot in Switzerland in 1923 and Pyotr Voikov in Poland in 1927. For the rest of the 20th century and beyond, top-ranking Russian diplomats were spared despite the Soviet Union’s major geopolitical ambitions. One explanation could be that the Soviets took the security of their diplomats extra seriously, turning embassies into fortresses and closely guarding the ambassadors. Another reason is that the Soviet Union often sided with the same violent parties that killed Western diplomats.
Now, however, Russia finds itself in a new, unaccustomed position. It is still not part of the West as far as the West is concerned, but it is Western enough, godless enough to hundreds of Islamist terror groups. Some of them hate Russia and the U.S. equally, others have more hatred for one than for the other. The Turkish policeman who shot Karlov was apparently a strong backer of the rebels whom the Syrian Army, with Russian support, has just defeated in Aleppo. But one could easily imagine a U.S. ambassador being targeted for his country’s failure to intervene, seen by some radicals as betrayal, or for the U.S. bombing raids on the Islamic State.
Even though nations that broadly represent the Western secular civilization have been unable to take a common stand in Syria, they are all targets to terrorists — as indistinguishable as the various groups of fighters in Syria are to a casual Western observer. Russians may think their country intervened in Syria to counterbalance a hostile U.S. influence, but to Islamists, it is merely another crusader nation.
One can blame Karlov’s murder on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s swaggering assertiveness, on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s encouragement of Islamist values, or on wily Erdogan opponents trying to damage Turkey’s budding partnership with Russia on Syria. One can examine the motivations of the specific assassin and decry the specific ambassador’s lack of security consciousness. None of this matters much in the final analysis, though.
Broadly, “Western” powers meddling in the Middle East today face the same dangers as they did in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the majority of ambassadors were assassinated. The region is once again a powder keg, only this time the wars have displaced tens of millions of people. Many of them have a grievance against the interfering powers or can develop a grudge when recruiters for terrorist groups whisper poison in their ears. It’s a war in which every representative of the secular world is a target for someone.
That, perhaps, is why there is no visible rift between Russia and Turkey. On Tuesday, the two countries’ foreign ministers laid flowers together in Moscow in memory of the murdered ambassador. If the assassination is a casus belli at all, it should be one against Islamist radicals on all sides of the Syrian bloodbath.