Almost daily since Russia invaded Ukraine last week, the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia have tightened the grip of sanctions against Moscow. Yet even the devastating blows to the Russian state and its economy did not faze President Vladimir Putin as he launched a brutal overnight assault on Ukraine’s second-largest city.
“The Kharkiv attack is a war crime,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Tuesday. “It’s state terrorism of the Russian Federation.”
Zelenskyy’s words were undoubtedly chosen with care. Putin’s grand ambition is to be recognized as a great leader of a great power, and a single sanction in the US arsenal would tarnish Putin’s image and his country’s reputation enough to potentially bring him back to the brink of a global conflict. To officially label Russia as a terrorist state would further tarnish the reputation of the Kremlin and relegate Russia to pariah status.
There is no anvil in the world of sanctions as economically brutal as the US government’s designation as a “state sponsor of terrorism”. The State Department has added countries to the list since 1979, when Syria became the first. Today, four countries are on the list: Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Sometimes a state falls off the list because it has reformed its behavior and returned to the international fold, or because it has undergone a change in leadership. In my former role at the State Department, I led the office that developed the evidence base to remove Cuba and North Korea (the latter being added to the list under my watch).
Designating a country as a state sponsor of terrorism would harm the financial system of the target country, potentially:
• Freeze of the country’s assets in the United States, including real estate
• Oblige the United States to veto that country’s efforts to obtain loans from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund
• Prohibit a wide variety of dual-use exports
• Require the United States to take economic action against countries that continue to do business with the targeted country
Perhaps more importantly, Russia would join a very small table of pariah states. The collective backs and the banks of the world would turn against Putin, and his reputation as a great statesman – his great hope, after all – was unlikely to recover.
Adding Russia to the list of state sponsors of terrorism would be the nuclear economic option and a precision strike against Putin’s ego. The decision should not be made in haste. Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States did not sanction the Soviet Union with this designation, although the Soviets provided support to a wide range of terrorist actors throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Yet the Trump administration in 2018 considered adding Russia to the list for its attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy and defector.
The Biden administration would be on solid ground by adding the Russian Federation to the list. The various underlying laws that guide state sponsor terrorism determinations allow the United States to consider a wide range of activities, even going so far as to span the last decade for terrorist malfeasance.
The Kremlin attack on Ukraine, while a flagrant violation of international law, is not terrorism for the purposes of this designation. But Russia has provided plenty of other ground over the past decade. To designate a country as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the country’s government has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, such as assassinations or the financing of terrorist groups.
A country can only be added to the list if there are at least two examples of state-sponsored terrorism. We need not look far, however, to find another clear example. To this day, Russia provides safe haven to a US-designated terrorist group, the Imperial Russian Movement, which operates with impunity on Russian territory. This is a group that trained terrorists to carry out an attack in Sweden, and it served as a proxy force for Russia in Crimea.
The great irony of Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine, “denazification” as he cynically calls it, is that his Russia is a state that supports terrorism. Adding Russia to the list of state sponsors of terrorism should be on the table. It is perhaps the only tool of punishment that could bring shame and regret to the cruel Russian leader.
Jason M. Blazakis is Professor of Practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He served as Director of the Department of State’s Office of Counterterrorism Funding and Designations in the Bureau of Counterterrorism from 2008 to 2018.) ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by content agency Tribune.