Assassination in Ankara

Russia, NATO, and Turkey's Violent Politics

The coffin of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov is carried outside of the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, December 2016. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

On December 19, Mevlut Mert Altintas, a Turkish police officer, assassinated Andrei Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. His action was apparently meant as retribution for Russian bombings in eastern Aleppo, and he is the latest in a string of right-wing terrorists in Turkey whose acts have served to draw Ankara back toward the West. Less than two weeks after the assassination, in the early hours of January 1, a gunman believed to have been affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) killed at least 39 people at an Istanbul nightclub. If such attacks continue, as they very likely will, they could undermine Erdogan's grip on power, which is what the wave of terror is all about, even if the perpetrators differ. 

At this stage, it is impossible to know Altintas’ precise intention, whether he was a “lone wolf” or was directed by others, and what consequences the murder will have. But historical patterns offer some clues. First, Turkey has seen a long line of high-level assassinations carried out by the country’s right wing, made up of Sunni Islamists and Turkish nationalists, who have always been aligned in Turkish politics. The killers have typically had connections—a direct one in the case of Altintas, who was a riot police officer—with the country’s security agencies. Second, assassinations have tended to take place in particular geopolitical circumstances, namely whenever Turkey’s long-standing commitment to the Western security alliance has seemed to be in jeopardy.

The first wave came in the 1960s and 1970s, when the left was ascendant in Turkey. Back then it looked as if the country, a member of NATO since 1952, could end up being pulled into the Soviet Union’s orbit. The violence—assassinations and massacres—reached its peak during the late 1970s and claimed more than five thousand lives. The targets were leftist intellectuals, students, trade unionists, and Alevis, the left-leaning, heterodox Muslim minority. Later, in the early 2000s, factions within the Turkish military—otherwise a staunch proponent of NATO—

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