What it means to designate Russia as a sponsor of terrorism, and why the US should take this decisive step

23 November 2022, 11:41 AM
Russia uses the theme of the Second World War to justify the war in Ukraine (in the photo — an exhibition in Moscow, November 2022) (Photo:REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo)

Russia uses the theme of the Second World War to justify the war in Ukraine (in the photo — an exhibition in Moscow, November 2022) (Photo:REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo)

More and more national parliaments and interparliamentary organizations (including the assemblies of NATO and the Council of Europe) are voting to recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism or a terrorist state. These are important political steps to condemn the Russian regime, but the most important word remains with the United States.

NV discusses what it would mean for the U.S. to include Russia on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, what the chances of this happening are, and what important steps have been taken along this path.

"State sponsor of terrorism:" what garners this status and who grants it

The concept of "state sponsor of terrorism" is a term used by the U.S. State Department to designate those countries "that have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism."

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As a rule, the formal decision to recognize a country as a "sponsor of terrorism" is made by the U.S. Secretary of State.

This designation means that the U.S. authorities will impose four main categories of sanctions on the state:

  • restrictions on aid from the U.S., including economic aid;
  • a ban on the export and sale of defense products to the country;
  • additional control measures over the export of dual-use goods;
  • various financial and other restrictions.

In addition, if the U.S. designates a country as a sponsor of terrorism, this has a number of other consequences:

  • sanctions and various measures against those individuals and countries that trade with a "terrorist" state;
  • ending sovereign immunity from representatives of the country sponsoring terrorism (meaning, for example, that family members of victims of terrorist attacks or attacks perpetrated by the state sponsor of terrorism could sue for compensation in U.S. courts);
  • a reputational blow to the designated country.

As of 2022, the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism includes four countries:

  • Cuba (from 1982 to 2015, then removed from the list under Barack Obama, whose administration eased U.S. sanctions against Cuba, and returned to the list again in 2021, eight days before the end Donald Trump’s presidency)
  • DPRK (in 1988-2008, then was excluded after the agreement on the admission of IAEA inspectors to all the nuclear facilities declared by the agency, and again returned to the list in 2017)
  • Iran (since 1984)
  • Syria (since 1979)

At various points, this list has also included Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and Sudan.

Why recent recognitions of Russia as a sponsor of terrorism are important for Ukraine

The recognition of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism is currently the main goal that Ukraine is trying to achieve when it comes to international sanctions pressure on Russia, explained presidential chief-of-staff Andriy Yermak in an interview with NV this summer.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly called upon the world community to recognize Russia as a sponsor of terrorism in the context of its countless war crimes, including the killing of civilians and missile attacks on the civilian infrastructure of Ukrainian cities.

"These are not accidental missile strikes on kindergartens, schools, shopping malls, and residential buildings – these are calculated strikes by the occupiers,” Zelenskyy said on June 28 after the attack on the Amstor shopping center in Kremenchuk.

"Russia should be recognized as a state sponsor of terrorism. The world is capable of stopping Russian terror, and must therefore do so.”

He, along with a number of other senior members of his administration and Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, have been repeating this call since the first months of spring — and they voiced it again after Russia struck the center of Vinnytsia on July 14.

On July 21, presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak spoke in support of U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, who called on U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to make a decision on this significant measure towards Moscow. "There cannot be ‘flexibility’ and realpolitik when one country kills children and black-mails half the world with hunger and cold,” Podolyak argued confidently.

“Speaker Pelosi's clear position is that Russia is a terrorist country and will be officially recognized as such. Putin dreamed of going down in history like Peter I. Now his name will be next to bin Laden’s.”

On May 3, 2022, the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, appealed to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate to recognize the Russian Federation as a sponsor of terrorism. The Rada recognized the Russian Federation as a terrorist state on April 14, introducing a special designation for this in Ukrainian legislation.

The Lithuanian parliament unanimously adopted a resolution in which it recognized the Russian invasion of Ukraine as genocide, and Russia itself as a state that supports and commits acts of terrorism. Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, and Poland have taken analogous steps.

Although these votes by national parliaments do not have direct consequences for the strengthening of international sanctions against Russia, they are a sign of diplomatic support for Ukraine and of the increasingly unanimous condemnation of the crimes of the Russian regime by the international community.

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For example, the Senate of Poland, in a resolution dated October 26, called on other democratic countries to recognize Putin's regime as terrorist, and also supported the idea of investigating war crimes committed by Russia against Ukraine and of the considering of these cases by the International Criminal Court.

Even more significant are two recent inter-parliamentary resolutions. Although they, too, are also mere political measures, they help to build pressure on both Russia and the international community (including the United States), in particular, to further isolate the Russian Federation and create a tribunal to make it answer for its crimes.

On October 13, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution supporting Ukraine and recognizing Russia as a terrorist regime. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy called the decision "a powerful signal of the world community."

On October 21, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly approved a resolution calling on members of the Alliance to recognize the Russian regime as terrorist. This resolution also calls for a number of other important measures, including:

  • creating a special international tribunal to investigate Russia's war crimes,
  • increasing arms supplies to Ukraine,
  • developing specific steps regarding Ukraine's accession to NATO,
  • creating a mechanism for collecting reparations from Russia for the damage caused to Ukraine.

Finally, on November 23, a resolution recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism will be considered by the European Parliament.

As the official newsletter of the European Parliament reminds us, in the war against Ukraine, "the Russian military has intensified its strikes on civilian targets, including energy infrastructure, hospitals, medical facilities, schools and shelters – violating international law and international humanitarian law in the process."

Therefore, by declaring Russia to be a state sponsor of terrorism, “MEPs want to prepare the ground for [Vladimir] Putin and his government to be held accountable for these crimes before an international tribunal."

Discussion in the U.S.A.: why the Biden Administration is delaying, and can the State Department still designate the Russian Federation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The most real effect from Washington’s side would be the recognition of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. Similar calls were heard in the U.S. long before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.

For example, in the summer of 2020, even during the Trump Administration, the Republican Study Committee, a bloc of 147 Republicans in the House of Representatives (comprising a majority of the Republican caucus) stated that the anti-Russian sanctions that had been imposed by Washington since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 were insufficient. Therefore, they proposed new measures against Moscow, most importantly designating the Russian Federation as a sponsor of terrorism.

"Russia has sponsored terrorism throughout the world yet it paints itself as a counterterror partner,” the group explained in their 120-page national security strategy proposal, Strengthening America and Countering Global Threats.

“The top U.S. Commander in Afghanistan has stated that Russia is directly arming the Taliban. Russia has directly coordinated with and given air cover to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah in the war in Syria."

As the BBC has noted, there have been other attempts to designate Russia as a "terrorist" state. In the spring of 2018, after an assassination attempt by the Russian special services on Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Robert Menendez, called for this step against Moscow. In December 2019, the Committee supported a bill introduced by Republican Senator Cory Gardner to recognize Russia as a sponsor of terrorism.

Despite these calls, Russia has still never been included on this list. However, the savage and brutal full-scale war that the Kremlin is waging against Ukraine has repeatedly strengthened both Kyiv's calls for this step and the grounds for it.

On May 12, 2022, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Republican Joe Wilson and Democrat Ted Lieu introduced a bipartisan resolution proposing to recognize the Russian Federation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

"By designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, the United States would be able to ban dual-use exports to Russia and take economic action against other countries that do business with Russia,” argued Rep. Lieu in a joint statement with his Re-publican colleague.

“What’s more, the U.S. could further inflict pain on Russia by freezing the country’s assets in the U.S., like real estate. We know that Russia provides sanctuary to a U.S.-designated terrorist group and has employed mercenaries with histories of human rights violations. A state sponsor of terrorism designation is a common-sense way to further aid Ukraine.”

They also recalled that in addition to war crimes in Ukraine and "the bloodbath that has already resulted in the death of unknown thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers.”

“However, Russia’s involvement in international terrorism is more expansive and has been well documented for years, whether through direct attacks or orchestrated through private military networks and hired thugs. Their reign of terror must be stopped,” they urged.

In parallel, the U.S. Senate voted for a similar resolution at the end of July. The document is also bipartisan, being proposed by Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

"Putin is a terrorist, and Putin's Russia is one of the most destructive forces on the planet," said Senator Graham.

“Putin's Russia deserves this designation [...]. We are also making it clear to the Russian people that we are fighting Putin — and as long as he is your leader, engaging in this kind of activity [international terrorism], you will be isolated on the world stage.”

The Senators also cited a long list of arguments in support of their claim, including:

  • at the behest of Vladimir Putin, Russian authorities encourage acts of international terrorism against political opponents and states;
  • on Putin's orders, the Russian government launched a campaign of terror, using brutal force against civilians during the Second Chechen War, in which the actions of the Russian army in Grozny led to the death or injury of countless innocent men, women and children;
  • since 2014, the Russian government has supported separatists who commit acts of violence against Ukrainian civilians in Donbas;
  • since the entry of the Russian Federation into the civil war in Syria in 2015, the Russian military has struck civilians, carrying out attacks on markets, medical institutions, and schools; at the same time, Russian authorities provide material support to Syria, which is itself already a state sponsor of terrorism;
  • The Russian Federation is sowing terror around the world, including through private military networks of mercenaries, such as the Wagner PMC, in an attempt to consolidate its influence over a number of regions and support the goals of the Russian foreign policy; at the same time, the U.S. Treasury Department considers Wagner's PMC to be a "puppet force of the Russian Ministry of Defense";
  • in February 2022, it was reported that more than 400 Russian mercenaries, including from Wagner, were sent to Kyiv with orders from the Kremlin to kill President Zelenskyy and Ukrainian government officials;
  • The Russian military has committed numerous mass executions of innocent civilians and tried to cover up their crimes with mass graves throughout Ukraine;
  • On March 14, 2022, OSCE head Zbigniew Rau recognized the actions of the Russian government in Ukraine against innocent civilians and civilian infrastructure facilities as "state terrorism;"
  • On March 17, 2022, President Zelenskyy called on the world to recognize the Russian Federation as a terrorist state, and the Verkhovna Rada made the same appeal to the U.S. Congress.

Finally, on July 20, Politico reported on a phone conversation between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in which Pelosi demanded that the Secretary of State designate Russia as a sponsor of terrorism, or Congress would do so itself.

According to Politico, Congress discussed taking this unprecedented step in the summer of 2022.

“There’s no legal reason Congress could not pass legislation to effectively designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism,” a Democratic aide told the publication.

“Congress passing legislation is obviously a more complicated route than the secretary making the designation, but it would give the administration the political cover it needs to escalate economic pressure and rhetoric against Putin.”

The prospects for this proposal may be affected by the results of the midterm elections, in which the Republican Party won a majority in the House of Representatives.

So far, the State Department, which is responsible for the formal decision, has commented cautiously on designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. As recently as April 27, 2022, Secretary of State Blinken said in remarks before Congress, "I have no doubt that the Russians are terrorizing the Ukrainian people."

And yet, the U.S. State Department has so far not decided to take the step of making the designation explaining its position by the fact that it requires a thorough analysis of all the consequences. For example, State Department spokesman Ned Price explained to journalists in the spring that the White House had already imposed sanctions against Russia that include designating the Russian Federation as a sponsor of terrorism.

"We are going to consider all possible options [...] that will be effective in bringing Russia to justice – and if the tool is available and effective, we will not hesitate to use it," Price asserted.

Politico suggests that the State Department’s delay may also be related to the fact that the scale of trade between Russia and other countries of the world is much larger than with that of countries such as North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Iran, making it more difficult to expand sanctions to many sectors of the Russian economy.

It was also reported that the State Department is afraid that recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism could affect the "grain agreement."

In September, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stated directly that Washington does not yet intend to recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, as this could "have unintended consequences for Ukraine and the world" and "seriously affect the delivery of aid to certain regions of Ukraine."

Arguments for and against: experts’ opinions on whether the designation will help Ukraine

In a recent article, the news magazine Foreign Policy analyzed why the hypothetical decision to recognize Russia as a sponsor of terrorism has drawn skepticism.

“U.S. officials and experts familiar with the matter describe a debate within the National Security Council and State Department on the merits of the move, with some officials arguing that a [state sponsor of terrorism] designation would send a powerful signal of support to Kyiv and others arguing that it wouldn’t have much of a practical impact, given that Russia already faces one of the strictest sanctions regimes in the world,” the publication reports.

Among the latter group is lawyer Ingrid Wurth, head of the Department of International Law at Vanderbilt University Law School and an expert on the State Department's Advisory Committee on Public International Law.

In a recent article, she points out that in practice, the inclusion of the Russian Federation in the list of "terrorist" countries does not make much sense and will be rather symbolic, since:

  • Russia does not receive foreign aid from the U.S. anyway;
  • there is already a ban on the export and sale of defense products to Russia;
  • significant financial restrictions have already been imposed on Russia;
  • the designation may make it more difficult to use frozen Russian assets for future compensation to Ukrainians for their losses in the war, as plaintiffs in law-suits currently in U.S. courts over Russian actions over previous years (including in Chechnya, Syria, and beyond) may be awarded claims on these assets first;
  • only a very limited group of plaintiffs (U.S. citizens, U.S. military personnel, and civil servants) will have the right to sue over for acts of terrorism committed by Russia — for example, families of U.S. citizens who died in Ukraine at the hands of the Russian military or American relatives of Ukrainians killed, but not Ukrainian families.

On the other hand, other experts argue that the recognition of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism would have a significant reputational effect. The move would increase pressure on the Kremlin and make virtually any relationship with Russia impossible for U.S. citizens, writes Politico. According to Atlantic Council sanctions expert Edward Fishman, “Labeling Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism would be significant because it’s a blanket measure... [It] brings risk to any relation-ship with Russia."

He also added that a congressional mandate to grant the Russian Federation such a status would make any secondary sanctions against Russia "far more effective."

The Yermak-McFaul sanctions group, in a special project for independent newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, pointed to six main consequences of the potential U.S. designation of the Russian Federation as a state sponsor of terrorism:

1. Symbolic: recognition of Russia as one of the main global perpetrators of atrocities and terror, which the country carries out against civilian populations.

2. Diplomatic: reduction of formal ties and joint programs between the U.S. and Russia, along with increased diplomatic isolation of Russia.

3. Sanctions and restrictions on transactions: it will be illegal for American individuals and legal entities to participate in financial transactions with the Russian government, Russian state-owned banks and enterprises, and persons connected with the Russian government.

4. Secondary sanctions against entities that are connected, for example, by transactions with Russia and its institutions. This means that the U.S. and its allies can impose sanctions (usually financial or trade) on any country that continues to cooperate with the Russian Federation, prompting other countries to avoid such cooperation.

5. Blacklisting of the Russian Federation by The Financial Action Task Force (FATF):unlike the partial disconnection of Russian banks from SWIFT, this step would affect the banking system of the Russian Federation in its entirety, rather than in selective parts (this would mean the blocking of correspondent accounts of Russian banks around the world, including in China).

6. Enabling judicial, executive, and other actions against Russia directly by voiding Russia’s sovereign immunity, thereby allowing the real possibility of bringing Russia to justice in the courts of other countries. Normally, a court of one country cannot issue judgements against another country. However, a state sponsor of terrorism designation creates an exception to sovereign immunity in U.S. courts.

Russia's threats in response

The real significance of the designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism is most clear in the reaction of Moscow itself to this potential step. Each new wave of discussions about this decision provokes threatening statements in the Kremlin.

"It is very difficult to do something that could further spoil relations between Russia and America, they are already in an unattractive state," said Russia’s presidential spokesperson Dmytro Peskov on July 21, adding that the Kremlin "assesses the consequences of such a step extremely negatively."

Earlier, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova called the initiative to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism “a measure of an idiotic nature." She stated that such steps "would receive their developments" and "would not remain unanswered.”

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