Why Assassinated Russian Envoy Had No Bodyguard

What Putin has dismissed as a 'provocation' to derail relations with Turkey has others wondering why Ambassador Andrey Karlov had no protection against his assassin.

The shooting of Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, after being shot at an Ankara art exhibit, December 19, 2016
Burhan Ozbilici, AP

MOSCOW - Talks in Moscow between Russia, Turkey and Iran went ahead on Tuesday, despite the assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov by a former policeman on Monday night. Amid fears of yet another freeze in relations with Turkey, President Vladimir Putin dismissed the killing as a “provocation” meant to poison the two countries against each other and said the only response could be to “strengthen the fight with terrorism.”

But while Putin was quick to move on from the incident for the sake of the Syria talks, Russian activists and media have been raising questions about why Karlov had no defenses against the rogue policeman, who shot him nine times in the back while yelling, “Don't forget about Aleppo.” In video footage of the murder, the assassin is seen walking behind Karlov, fidgeting with his coat and reaching inside it as the ambassador makes a speech at an Ankara photo exhibit. It took several minutes for him to draw his pistol and open fire. 

No guards were visible near Karlov, only an interpreter. It is believed the killer snuck into the event using his police ID.

“We didn't have any security at all,” Karlov's wife Marina, who was present when he was shot, told the news outlet Life. “Only an interpreter sometimes accompanied us.”

The killing of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 sparked one of the longest congressional investigations in history and cast a shadow over Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, even though the former secretary of state was cleared of any professional misconduct. But there has been no indication that the Russian government will engage in similar soul-searching after the death of its own ambassador.

A woman lays a flower outside the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow following the assassination of Russia's ambassador to Turkey on December 20, 2016.
Vasily Maximov, AFP

In a Facebook post, Maria Baronova, a well-known opposition activist who unsuccessfully ran for parliament this fall, asked why the ambassador was without protection. 

“There was no security. For the ambassador of a nuclear power. For the ambassador of a nuclear power in Turkey, where terrorist attacks are happening constantly. For the ambassador of a country that has difficult relations with Turkey and is waging war in Turkey's neighbor Syria,” Baronova wrote. “It turns out our ambassadors are not given security even in what's practically a hotspot. How is that possible!?”

Russia's recent actions in the Middle East have drawn threats of retaliation in the region. After a Russian airliner was blown up over Egypt in October 2015, Islamic State claimed it had orchestrated the attack in revenge for Russia's bombing campaign in support of Syrian president Bashar Assad. Tensions arose with Ankara last year after Turkish jets shot down a Russian bomber near the Syrian border, although Erdogan and Putin made up this summer. Alexander Lukashevich, Russia's representative to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and former spokesman for the foreign ministry, said on Rossiya 24 television that he had told Karlov to have a “scrupulous attitude toward security” due to the risky conditions in Turkey.

Retired Soviet ambassador Pogos Akopov told Vzglyad newspaper that he was surprised there were no bodyguards with Karlov and blamed both Turkish and Russian security for his death. “It's known that terrorists are operating in Turkey, maximum precautionary measures should have been taken,” he said. “Our special services should have warned him about this.”

When asked why Karlov didn't have any security, Putin's spokesman said the question should be addressed to the foreign ministry. That ministry's spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, told Haaretz that the host country is responsible for guarding embassies. “As far as internal security, that's regulated by internal documents,” she said, declining to comment further.

Alexander Mikhailov, a retired general in Russia's main security agency, the FSB, told Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper that Turkish police should have been providing security at the exhibit where Karlov was shot. Although ambassadors typically have their own security guards, embassy employees can't carry arms outside the embassy, so “guarding the ambassador with our own forces is very difficult.”

News agency Rosbalt quoted an “anonymous member” of Zaslon, a highly secretive unit of Russia's foreign intelligence service that has guarded diplomats in Iraq, Afghanistan and other high-risk countries, as saying Turkey had prevented Russia from deploying the unit to Turkey, despite to the risk posed by Islamic militants from the North Caucasus who had fled there. If Zaslon members would have been guarding Karlov, “absolutely no people would have been behind the diplomat's back during his speech,” he said.

“The idea that Zaslon troopers should guard diplomats in Turkey was first raised more than 10 years ago,” the source said. “But permission for this was needed from the Turks, and they never gave it.”

Talks about deploying Zaslon members to Turkey “were urgently revived” after the ambassador's death, he said. 

Analysts said even if Russia did indeed make such requests, any country would think twice about hosting Zaslon, since the unit is heavily armed and typically deploys to war zones.
 
“Somewhere between the Russians and the Turks is the security breakdown,” Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and an expert on the Russian security services, told Haaretz. “In these circumstances, for the ambassador to be out without any kind of security seems surprising. That's a long way short of saying they need Zaslon.”

Despite the accusations against Turkey for allegedly refusing Zaslon, the responsibility should be shared, said Andrei Soldatov, who wrote the book The New Nobility about security services in Russia. “Both sides are at fault, Turkey for not doing normal security checks, and the embassy because no guards stood at back of the ambassador,” Soldatov told Haaretz. 

While Putin has ordered an increase in security at diplomatic facilities and told Russia's investigative committee to send staff to participate in the murder investigation in Turkey, he has not called for any domestic inquiry into the ambassador's death. Far from the suspicions of negligence raised by U.S. congresspeople after the ambassador was killed in Libya, Russian officials have echoed Putin's desire to move on, arguing that the assassination must not be allowed to ruin relations with Turkey. Galeotti said Bengazhi-style recriminations were unlikely. 

“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,” he said

“Of course there will be statements in the United Nations Security Council, where we will voice our position and not only that, but the main thing is that there won't be a new downward spiral in relations between Moscow and Ankara,” Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the security committee in parliament, told Rossiya 24 television.