Russia is guilty of terrible war crimes in Syria and Ukraine. In Aleppo alone, Russian aircraft have undoubtedly been responsible for hundreds of deaths. But none of that in any way serves as justification for the assassination of Andrey Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. The alleged culprit was a Turkish policeman who shouted, “Don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” after gunning down Karlov from the back.
This attack was all the more revolting and stunning because it was not just an attack on one man or even one country but on the very underpinnings of the international system as it has existed since time immemorial. As Encyclopedia Britannica noted, “The inviolability of diplomatic envoys has been recognized by most civilizations and states throughout history. To ensure exchanges of information and to maintain contact, most societies—even preliterate ones—granted messengers safe-conduct… In Roman law the unassailability of ambassadors was guaranteed even after the outbreak of war.” The doctrine of “extraterritoriality” was further refined by the 17th Century legal scholar Hugo Grotius and has been widely respected since.
The fact that diplomatic immunity is such an age-old, universal doctrine makes violations of its tenets–such as the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran or today’s assassination–all the more despicable and shocking. It does not, however, mean that we are about to see the outbreak of World War III as some of the more facile Internet analogies to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand have suggested.
In the first place, Franz Ferdinand was not simply an ambassador; he was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Secondly, his death at the hands of young Bosnian fanatics eager to create Yugoslavia (a state that would unite South Slavs) presented a convenient excuse for warmongers in Vienna to do that what they had been eager to do all along–to crush Serbia which they viewed as a threat to the Habsburgs’ remaining empire in the Balkans. That, in turn, drew Russia, Serbia’s ally, and Germany, Austria’s ally, into a wider European war.
The spark that ignited World War I—and, indirectly, World War II as well–came from a tinderbox composed of the extreme nationalism and glamorization of war in all the major European powers combined with exaggerated self-confidence. The Austrians thought they could easily crush the Serbs; the Germans thought they could easily crush first France and then Russia; Russia thought it could easily crush Austria and, if necessary, Germany, too.
Extreme nationalism is certainly present today in both Russia and Turkey–fomented by Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, two strongmen who rely on external threats to mobilize their own populations behind their rule. There is even a defensive alliance–NATO–that links Turkey to the United States and most of the nations of Europe, which would force them to come to Turkey’s defense if it is attacked by Russia.
But such an attack is extremely unlikely. It is doubtful that Putin cares enough about the fate of one ambassador to risk a general conflagration that would pit Russia, even discounting all of the other NATO members, against a military adversary far more formidable than either Ukraine or the Syrian rebels. Turkey, after all, is a country with more than 400,000 active-duty troops, nearly 4,000 tanks, more than 2,000 artillery pieces, and over 1,000 aircraft. This is not a foe Moscow would tangle with if it had any other alternative, and it does.
Indeed, there have already been provocations aplenty–e.g., last year’s shoot down by Turkey of a Russian warplane, which could have served as a casus belli if Putin had desired. For all of Putin’s bellicosity, he has a long pattern of avoiding wars against powerful foes, preferring to beat up on weak adversaries (such as the Georgians, Chechens, Ukrainians, and Syrian rebels) and using “hybrid warfare” techniques, such as his infamous “little green men” to avoid being held to direct account by the U.S. and other powerful states.
Erdogan, for his part, is wasting no time tying the gunman, rightly or (probably) wrongly, to Fethullah Gülen, the exiled Turkish Islamic leader living in Pennsylvania who has also been blamed by Erdogan with little evidence for the July coup attempt, among other offenses. Thus the human tragedy–the death of a veteran diplomat–will soon be forgotten amid the geopolitical maneuvering of all sides. That, perhaps, is the only analogy to 1914 that holds up, even if today’s maneuvering is unlikely to result in a global conflagration.