This haunting photo of Vladimir Putin at ambassador Karlov’s funeral holds a political message

(Reuters/Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Nikolskyi)
(Reuters/Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Nikolskyi)
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It’s a rare sight to see Vladimir Putin sad, but the Russian president was captured with striking pathos at a memorial service for slain ambassador Andrey Karlov yesterday.

Just three days ago, Karlov’s murder was documented in a shocking photo that showed his assassin with his gun in the air, while reportedly shouting, “Do not forget Aleppo!” That was followed with the cinematic image above, a Dec. 22 handout which shows an emotional Putin standing before Karlov’s open casket, all eyes on him.

Distributed by Russian state network Sputnik, the photo has Putin standing at the center of a symmetrically composed frame. The coffin and Karlov are barely visible, putting all the emphasis on Putin and his reaction.

It’s no accident that Putin is flanked by two guards in military uniform in the foreground. In a TV address on Dec. 19, the Russian president called Karlov’s assassination a “provocation,” and promised that his ”only response”  will be “stepping up the fight against terrorism.”

“The killers will feel it,” he said.

A soldier’s side-eye. (Reuters/Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Nikolskyi)
A soldier’s side-eye. (Reuters/Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Nikolskyi)

In this photo by Alexei Nikolskyi, a young soldier on the left is trying to look toward the approaching Putin, directing an observer’s attention to the president. This sense of watchfulness is enforced by the crowd observing him intently from behind. It’s a message of both Russian strength and general anticipation: The frame is filled with people at Putin’s sides and back as he considers Karlov’s loss, and perhaps, what to do next.

Russia has emerged as a central player in Syria’s civil war, even as the US edges further away from the region, and Karlov’s death may be Russia’s highest-profile casualty of its involvement in the region. Many have compared the murder to the 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand, a trigger event for WWI, fearing that the Dec. 19 murder in Ankara could shake up already-tense relations.

However, Putin has described the assassination as an attack on Russia’s “friendship” with Turkey. On Dec. 20, Russian, Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers met up to discuss their involvement in Syria, though the three countries back different sides of Syria’s bloody conflict.

Russia has supported contested president Bashar al-Assad’s regime with devastating military force, drawing accusations of targeting civilians. Assad’s recent recapture of Aleppo, declared on Dec. 13, is also a victory for Putin, but Karlov’s death is an unexpected twist—this solemn funeral may open a next act.