Labeling Russia a Terrorist State Would Be a Dangerous Stunt
Designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism would diminish the prospects for a swift end to the conflict and introduce a host of burdensome new challenges for U.S. policymakers.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced a bill on Wednesday to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism along with countries such as Libya, Cuba, and North Korea. It’s a mischievous piece of legislation that aims to force President Joe Biden’s hand, depriving him of even a scintilla of diplomatic flex. The administration has correctly recognized that designating Russia a terror state amounts to a counterproductive exercise in senatorial posturing that is wholly inimical to American national interests.
The designation would curtail defense and technology exports to Russia and eliminate the country’s sovereign immunity before U.S. courts, “opening Russia’s government to lawsuits and other civil claims from the families of victims of its state-sponsored terrorism.”
The Graham-Blumenthal bill seeks to circumvent the State Department to unilaterally add Russia to the state terrorism list, which currently includes Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Syria.
“We believe that it is long past due to designate Putin’s Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and suffer the consequences thereof because he is a terrorist. Ukrainians have been asking for this designation, and we are listening. This will be a game changer in how we deal with terrorists worldwide,” said Graham.
The White House opposes the label: “No,” Biden said when asked earlier this month if Russia should be designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Proponents of the measure say it will complement the Western sanctions regime by further deterring economic actors from doing business with Russia and stigmatizing the Kremlin on the international stage.
Kyiv has lobbied for the designation. "There is still no official recognition of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. Citizens of the terrorist state can still go to Europe to rest and go shopping, they can still get European visas, and no one knows whether there are executioners or murderers among them who have just returned from the occupied territory of Ukraine," said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Yet the risks of such a move—both for Ukraine and the international system—are serious and vast; the benefits, practically nonexistent.
With the partial exception of Iran, the state sponsor of terrorism designation has thus far only been levied against smaller countries with which the U.S. maintains a limited, one-dimensional set of policy priorities. Applying the designation to Russia, a great power with sprawling military, economic, and political clout, would have considerable ripple effects for American interests across the world.
Experts and administration officials have raised concerns that the designation would make it exceedingly difficult not only to conduct dialogue with Russia across a wide range of issues, but to advance concrete policy goals beyond the bilateral Russia-U.S. relationship. State Department officials told Politico last month that the move would jeopardize a fragile four-way deal between Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the United Nations to guarantee unimpeded grain exports out of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, fueling the global food insecurity crisis. Russia has been a key mediator in fraught negotiations to bring Iran back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal. Designating Russia as, in effect, a pariah state could fatally weaken U.S. leverage in those talks, putting the final nail in the coffin of the moribund JCPOA platform. Efforts at deconfliction in the ongoing Azeri-Armenian conflict, the viability of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) format, prospects for a long-term settlement in Syria, and the fate of the New START arms control treaty would all be imperiled. Labeling Russia, a permanent UN Security Council member, a state sponsor of terrorism would upend a core multilateral institution at a time of acute crisis in Europe, thrusting the foundations of the postwar international order into doubt.
Rather than isolating Moscow, the measure could place the United States on a collision course with swathes of the non-Western world. China, India, South Africa, Indonesia, and Brazil, among others, have refused to join the Western sanctions regime. Some of these states, as in the case of Beijing, have openly expressed sympathy for Russia’s framing of the Ukraine conflict. The state terrorism sponsor designation—and the secondary sanctions it potentially implies—risks further agitating these differences in ways that can produce economic blowback for the United States and its allies.
There is widespread recognition in Washington and among U.S. allies that the war must end, as Biden wrote in May, at the negotiating table. As the party doing by far the most to keep the Ukrainian war effort afloat through an unprecedented program of military aid and intelligence sharing, the United States would have a key voice in the course of any prospective peace talks. But how can the White House negotiate, or encourage Kyiv to negotiate, in good faith with a government it has called a sponsor of terrorism? The designation, noted White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, would “undercut our unprecedented multilateral condition that has been so effective in holding Putin accountable and could also undermine our ability to support Ukraine at the negotiation table.”
The proposal, framed by many of its proponents as an act of retributive justice for Russia’s crimes in Ukraine, bears an understandably cathartic quality. "The need for this measure is more pressing now than ever before," said Blumenthal, citing Russia’s "brutal, cruel oppression that amounts truly to genocide because people have been killed simply because they are Ukrainian."
“If we could pull this off,” Graham said, “this would be an enormous shot in the arm for the Ukrainian people.” But the listing will not compel Moscow to change course in Ukraine or to relent in its broader program of confrontation with the West. It stands to achieve the opposite result, hardening the Kremlin’s resolve to see the war in Ukraine through to the bitter end. The designation neither helps Ukraine nor advances core American interests. Instead, it diminishes the prospects for a swift, negotiated end to the Ukraine conflict and introduces a host of burdensome new challenges for U.S. policymakers.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.