Is Russia a Terrorist State?

Kyiv thinks it knows the answer—while Washington debates.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A young woman walks over a hole made by a rocket in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, on July 15. At least 23 people were killed in the attack, including three children, and more than 100 were wounded, according to Ukrainian officials.
A young woman walks over a hole made by a rocket in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, on July 15. At least 23 people were killed in the attack, including three children, and more than 100 were wounded, according to Ukrainian officials.
A young woman walks over a hole made by a rocket in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, on July 15. At least 23 people were killed in the attack, including three children, and more than 100 were wounded, according to Ukrainian officials. Alexey Furman/GettyImages

Ukrainian officials and lawmakers are ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to label Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation meant to further diplomatically isolate Russia and cut off its economy from the global financial system.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky first implored Washington to label Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism in April, just over a month after Russia launched its full-fledged invasion of Ukraine under the guise of a “special military operation” based on the false premise of “denazifying” the Western-aligned country.

In the ensuing months, Ukrainian officials have repeated those calls with new urgency, as more evidence emerges of atrocities and war crimes committed by Russian forces against Ukrainian civilians and as Moscow steps up its tactic of missile strikes against civilian targets. On Friday, the U.S. Defense Department said as many as 150 civilians have been killed in Russian strikes over the past two weeks.

Ukrainian officials and lawmakers are ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to label Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation meant to further diplomatically isolate Russia and cut off its economy from the global financial system.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky first implored Washington to label Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism in April, just over a month after Russia launched its full-fledged invasion of Ukraine under the guise of a “special military operation” based on the false premise of “denazifying” the Western-aligned country.

In the ensuing months, Ukrainian officials have repeated those calls with new urgency, as more evidence emerges of atrocities and war crimes committed by Russian forces against Ukrainian civilians and as Moscow steps up its tactic of missile strikes against civilian targets. On Friday, the U.S. Defense Department said as many as 150 civilians have been killed in Russian strikes over the past two weeks.

“Russia should be recognized as a terrorist state. You can’t call what they do anything other than terrorism,” said Inna Sovsun, a Ukrainian member of parliament, after a Russian missile attack in Vinnytsia on July 14 left nearly two dozen people dead, including three children.

Human rights activists are echoing those same calls. “Russia uses the pain of civilians as a tool to paralyze the country and occupy the country,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian lawyer who is the head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv. Recent reports by human rights groups and international monitoring missions found that Russian forces have committed widespread atrocities against Ukrainian civilians, including torture, rape, murder, and the mass detention of civilians at so-called filtration centers.

So far, despite plenty of sympathy on Capitol Hill, the Biden administration has yet to pull the trigger on designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, or SST. 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 an SST 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.

Broadly speaking, an SST designation would have two major effects, according to legal experts. The first would be the implementation of a series of strict international sanctions on the country in question, and the second would drastically curtail the country’s sovereign immunity in the eyes of U.S. courts, opening the designated country’s government to lawsuits and other civil claims from the families of victims of its state-sponsored terrorism.

Russia already faces severe U.S. and European sanctions that have kneecapped its economy, meaning that the sanctions triggered under SST may end up being duplicative. In the case of Russia’s foreign sovereign immunity, things could get more complicated—and in ways that could ultimately backfire for Ukraine, said Ingrid Wuerth, a leading scholar on international law and foreign affairs at Vanderbilt University who wrote a recent article for the Just Security legal blog outlining arguments against designating Russia.

An SST designation could allow plaintiffs in the United States—be they the families of captured U.S. citizens serving as fighters in Ukraine’s foreign legions or American relatives of Ukrainians killed in the war—to file lawsuits and try to claim portions of the hundreds of billions of dollars in Russian assets and funds that have been frozen by U.S. regulators since the start of the war. This year, the Biden administration set aside $7 billion in frozen assets from Afghanistan to be used for humanitarian aid and possible legal payouts to the families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last August. It could potentially employ the same strategy with Russia in the future.

“Maybe someday we want to do that, but the problem is those assets are also assets that we could use now to help compensate Ukrainian victims of Russian aggression, and they’re also assets that could be used as a bargaining chip in any future negotiations with Russia,” Wuerth said.

U.S. officials are also wary of how an SST designation could cause any unforeseen economic blowback on developing countries that, at least at the moment, rely on commerce with Russia for staple foods or fuel supplies, a matter that has become increasingly urgent as economists predict a global economic slowdown, if not a widespread recession, spurred in part by Russia’s decision to launch the war. An SST designation could have a chilling effect on banks, insurers, and commodities traders still doing business in Russia. While that would certainly punish the Russian economy, these officials and experts argue, such a move could lead to other vulnerable countries getting caught in the crossfire, too.

Then there’s the question of whether Russia is ultimately committing acts of terrorism. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken himself hinted at this hang-up during a Senate hearing in April. “There’s no doubt in my mind … that the Russians are terrorizing the Ukrainian people,” Blinken told lawmakers at the hearing. “The question is this—and again, this is something that the lawyers are looking at—to make sure that we actually meet the statutory requirements of that designation.”

Months later, it’s still up for debate. Russia’s behavior in Ukraine “doesn’t fit what we traditionally think of as terrorism, but the statutes in question don’t have a precise definition of international terrorism,” Wuerth said. “Even though I don’t agree with this position as a policy matter, [U.S. President Joe] Biden would be acting within the statute if he designated Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Other experts expressed similar skepticism of the move. “They started this war. They are committing heinous war crimes,” said Brian O’Toole, a sanctions expert at the Atlantic Council and former Treasury Department official. “But a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ is supposed to be reserved for a fairly specific set of facts and uses” that may not apply to Russia, he said. O’Toole argued that there are still other sanctions the Biden administration can implement that would hurt Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle more effectively than an SST designation, including sanctions on additional Russian banks and on Russia’s oil sector.

“There are lots of levers left for Biden to pull in the economic pressure campaign” beyond an SST designation, O’Toole said.

A spokesperson for the State Department declined to say whether it would designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, saying the department does not comment on internal deliberations. “As a matter of law, in order to designate any country as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” the State Department spokesperson said in an email. The spokesperson added that the United States has already “hit hard at the things Putin cares about the most” through current sanctions and other retaliatory economic measures.

While the debate plays out within the administration, Congress has piled on pressure of its own on the other side of Washington, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month passing a resolution calling on Blinken to move forward with the designation and ramp up the campaign of economic pressure against Moscow.

Currently, only four countries are designated state sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Cuba. Ultimately, the secretary of state has to decide whether Russia should be added to that list.

Legal questions aside, the designation would be of profound symbolic importance for many Ukrainians, a recognition by the United States of the brutal nature of Russia’s military campaign in the country. “To recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism means that the world will recognize that the methods which Russia uses in order to win this war are terroristic methods. It recognizes our pain as Ukrainians,” Matviichuk said.

“It would be a great stride toward making Russia a new North Korea,” said Kira Rudik, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and leader of the political party Voice.

Update, July 19, 2022: This article was updated to include comment from a State Department spokesperson.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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