Why the Murder of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Could Mean War

Source: Russia Today
Source: Russia Today

In light of the recent horrific assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov, many pundits and historians have brought up the notion of this being a watershed moment in the relations between Turkey and Russia; one likened to that of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which precipitated the Great War in 1914.  Tensions have been quite strained for some time among the two states, primarily deriving from the November 2015 shoot-down of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24m bomber by Turkish F-16s on the Syria-Turkey border.  Then there’s also Russia’s propensity for hacking Turkey’s government and politicians, and the dispute over whether Bashar al-Assad should go or stay.

So a good friend of mine from NYU put out a piece yesterday titled “Why the Murder of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Doesn’t Mean War” and as good as it is, there are unquestionably some points we disagree on.

Unmistakably, one point of agreement is that of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Charter, in which it accentuates the importance of collective defense.  One for all, and all for one.  As Turkey is a NATO member, there is legitimate trepidation about the potential for this event spilling over into a war that would involve all NATO members.  This is an event that no one would fancy, and as I write this, there is presumably an abundance of strategic interaction in the diplomatic realm to avert any friction that could lead to the invoking of Article 5.

While I don’t think anything will come of this incident, I still maintain that we ought to not become too complacent and comfortable.  From the looks of it, the talks scheduled for today in Moscow between Russia, Iran, and Turkey in regards to the Syrian conflict is still to happen.  Nevertheless, Putin seems adamant to respond in force, and he’s already put out a statement yesterday during an emergency meeting of his National Security Council saying,

“A crime has been committed and it is without a doubt a provocation aimed at spoiling the normalization of Russo-Turkish relations and spoiling the Syrian peace process which is being actively pushed by Russia, Turkey, Iran and others.  We must know who directed the killer’s hand. There can be only one response – stepping up the fight against terrorism. The bandits will feel this happening.”

Erdogan echoed similar sentiments.

So you may be asking yourself, where is there any semblance of evidence that this assassination could lead to war, and why is this mad man still rambling on.  The singular act of the assassination itself isn’t nearly as catastrophic as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassination in 1914, but the buildup to WWI provided for an unpredictable climate because of the series of treaties between the different states that ended up warring.  In more contemporary times, since the end of bipolarity following the conclusion of the Cold War, the Post-Cold War error has held some striking resemblances to the Pre-WWI era.  Today’s world is truly multipolar, encompassing a network of bilateral agreements in security and trade.  This is dangerous because it poses the possibility of uninvited engagement of various states in the affairs of others.

What do I mean by this?  Well, currently Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria have multiple arrangements that counter that of liberal institutions like NATO and the UN.  This is precisely why Putin is propping up the murderous Assad in Syria, and why Iran is allowed to unceasingly yearn for the eradication of Israel and the United States and yet receive the opportunity to get the nuke.  On the other hand, Article 5 of NATO presents an unprecedented likelihood of a singular conflict developing into one that affects the entire Western order.  Then obviously there are the bilateral security agreements with the United States and the Asia-Pacific states, which could have been reinforced had the TPP passed through the United States Congress.  Lest not we overlook the arrangements between the BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

These series of bilateral agreements in a multipolar world bring the World into a perennial dilemma, equivalent to that of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Is the death of Andrei Karlov the spark that could initiate World War 3?  No.  But is the World as dangerous and unsettled as it was before World War I?  My view is yes.  In a world I have portrayed, I’d say that any single event like the unmerciful murder of a senior Russian diplomat in a NATO country, in which both states bear intractable divisions on several global issues, could lead to confrontation.  The fact that Article 5 obligates collective defense could only create strain, not minimize it.