Joe Biden, the President of the United States, does not think that russia should be designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in response to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
By contrast, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, insists on the necessity of such a designation and of limiting the issue of American visas to russians, as he stated at a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 8 September.
There is currently a fierce debate among politicians and experts in Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe about whether to label russia a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Of course it's worth it. And here's why.
Who would be against it
There is an objective reality, namely, the atrocities that have been committed and are being committed in temporarily occupied territories, and not only there, by the russian invaders, military and mercenaries.
More than 30,000 war crimes have been recorded, more than 90% of them
committed against the civilian population and aimed at destroying civilian
facilities. This is the reason why the top military and political leadership of Ukraine
have appealed to the United States with such a request.
The parliaments of Lithuania and Latvia have already labelled russia a sponsor of terrorism. However, this is more of a show of moral and political support. Only the U.S. has an effective legal mechanism and experience designating countries as sponsors of terrorism and to proceed to apply to them a whole range of comprehensive economic sanctions.
Most experts, civil society and even the U.S. Congress currently support designating russia as a sponsor of terrorism.
The Senate has already unanimously approved a resolution to this effect. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, announced that the members of that house of Congress are prepared to make a decision on this matter, if the State Department, which should play a leading role in this regard, does not do so.
A bipartisan quintet [group of five members of the House of Representatives - ed.] has even introduced a bill. However, the State Department has nott openly commented on it for more than a month, while working with Congress behind the scenes to persuade it of the impracticality of labeling russia a sponsor of terrorism.
Then Joe Biden’s statement was announced, giving a categorical "no" to this designation, and the next day [6 September], the White House spokeswoman gave three main arguments in favour of such a position.
An article by the International Crisis Group with the title "Why the U.S. should not designate Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism", which was published a month earlier, should also be considered alongside the arguments given by the White House.
The main argument is that the State Department wants to retain some freedom of manoeuvre for negotiations. However, a designation of russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism will narrow the room for manoeuvre. So, the Kremlin could resort to more radical actions, and in particular, to nuclear blackmail.
Then there are surreal arguments, such as that the russian government has made a contribution to the fight against international terrorism. Or that the inclusion of russia on the list of terrorist states will give U.S. citizens the right to make claims in American courts for compensation out of seized russian assets, which will significantly complicate the payment of compensation for damages to Ukraine.
Moreover, [the U.S. argues that] the lifting of sanctions following on from the designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, as well as the lifting of this label from russia in the event of the end of the war, will be a difficult and long process. And both the russian economy and its economic partners – the EU and EurAsEC [The Eurasian Economic Community] will suffer from it, which will also affect the world economy.
I have to disagree.
The U.S. has designated four states as sponsors of terrorism: Syria, Iran, Cuba and North Korea. The long arm of Soviet influence was felt in each of these countries. This entire terrorist network of rogue countries was and is within the sphere of influence of moscow. It was created there, managed from there, and received weapons, technologies and money from there.
The USSR was a terrorist state from the time of its creation. russia is the legal successor to the USSR. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, russia did not take the opportunity to become a thriving democracy. Instead, putin's one-man regime blew up residential buildings, unleashed the Second Chechen War and the war with Georgia, and cracked down on the opposition and on free journalism.
Therefore, to label russia a sponsor of terrorism is, at least, to call a spade a spade, but in fact it stikes at the heart of modern world terrorism.
The USSR was created by the armed seizure of power and the physical destruction of political opponents. Its official leadership overtly carried out the campaign of "Red Terror", including in the conquered lands.
This monster was in international isolation for the first decade of its existence. But when France, the U.S. and other Western countries began to recognise the USSR in order to begin economic cooperation with it, the Soviet leadership destroyed the Ukrainian peasantry in order to industrialise the USSR. This led to the Holodomor [a man-made famine in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933 perpetrated by the Soviet government - ed.], as a result of which about 4 million Ukrainians died.
russia is doing something similar now, when it steals Ukrainian grain and Ukrainian steel in the temporarily occupied territories, leaving the Ukrainian civilian population without food, medicine or a means of livelihood.
Mass shootings of civilians in Bucha and Irpin, the killing of thousands of civilians in the city of Mariupol, which was razed to the ground, the bombardment of the local maternity hospital, the intentional killing of hundreds of residents in the Mariupol drama theatre by airstrikes, firing on civilian facilities in Vinnytsia, Kramatorsk, Kremenchuk, where dozens of peaceful Ukrainians died, daily firing on residential areas of Kharkiv and missile strikes on the power plant - what is all that if not targeted terrorism?
And the use of mercenaries of the Wagner Group in hostilities, as well as of weapons prohibited by international conventions - cluster munitions, phosphorus bombs and anti-personnel mines? And the cynical murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war in Olenivka?
And nuclear blackmail? This is happening right now. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, russia captured the inactive but dangerous Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant as well as the fully operational Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is the largest in Europe. The occupiers mined the latter, posing a considerable threat. What is this, if not nuclear blackmail?
Add to this constant threats from moscow to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and the world. What is this, if not terrorism, which is supported, sponsored and carried out by russia?
It is clear that the key issue for Ukraine is collecting reparations from russian assets seized and frozen in the West as compensation for the damage caused.
To avoid competition between U.S. and Ukrainian citizens for compensation for damage caused as a result of russia's war against Ukraine, the U.S. Congress should adopt a specific act amending the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, the basis of which could be the Bennet-Portman bill.
The bill stipulates that all funds confiscated from the russian federation as a result of investigations conducted by the KleptoCapture task force [established within the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2022 -ed.], should be sent to help Ukrainian refugees and used for the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine. The full value of the damage that russia has inflicted on Ukraine and Ukrainians will be established only after the end of the war, but a detailed estimate, with the participation of authoritative international organisations, is already underway.
According to the Kyiv School of Economics Institute, the amount of documented direct losses of Ukraine reached US$114.5 billion by 5 September 2022. The largest component of the total damage is the housing stock and infrastructure (72%). The total losses in these two areas are estimated at US$82.9 billion.
In other words, this is not about damage to military facilities or military infrastructure, but to civilian housing. If you add damage to roads and to medical and educational facilities, these areas will amount to more than three quarters of all losses. The russian state, its armed forces and mercenaries are in effect fighting not against the Armed Forces of Ukraine but against Ukrainian civilians, deliberately destroying their homes and civilian facilities.
What is this, if not terrorism aimed at intimidating the civilian population of Ukraine? Moreover, the terrorism carried out by russia in Ukraine, which is not even on an international level but on a universal scale, is probably the greatest since the end of the Second World War.
How it works and why the U.S. can [take this decision]
Sanctions against countries classified under American law as sponsors of terrorism were carefully analysed in the latest report of the Kyiv School of Economics Institute that was prepared on the basis of the results of the work by the Yermak-McFaul Expert Group.
[State Sponsors of Terrorism] are thus subject to the following general measures by the U.S.:
- the requirement for a licence to export certain defence goods to these countries and the ban
- on exporting any ammunition to them;
- limitation of bilateral assistance;
- exclusion from the Generalized System of Preferences (the country cannot benefit from duty-free access to the U.S. market);
- a ban on financial transactions with the government of a country designated as a state
- sponsor of terrorism;
- introduction of exceptions to the jurisdictional immunity of a foreign state (i.e American citizens can sue russia and its residents in American courts for compensation);
- denial of foreign tax credit [for income earned in a state designated as a sponsor of terrorism - ed.];
- new restrictions on diplomatic relations and U.S. opposition [to loans - ed.] by international financial institutions.
Sometimes the U.S. refers to "support of terrorism" by such countries when introducing additional sanctions. These may be introduced "to deprive the country's government of revenues that can be used to finance and support terrorist groups and networks", which is relevant in the situation of Ukraine.
American sanctions are currently applied against four countries deemed sponsors of terrorism; these are divided into primary and secondary sanctions. Primary sanctions are those applied to terrorist states and their governments, whilst secondary sanctions are imposed on third countries or on businesses that trade with sanctioned states in prohibited areas. What does all this mean? It means that the American government and the State Department have more than enough room for manoeuvre.
The list of states sponsoring terrorism previously included Iraq, Libya, the South Yemen and Sudan. They are now off the blacklist. Cuba and North Korea were added to the list, then managed to leave it, but later were put on the list a second time.
Therefore, the U.S. has experience in removing countries from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, step-by-step lifting of sanctions, as well as their re-entry [in the list] with strengthening sanction measures. Moreover, an individual package of sanctions is applied to each sub-sanctioned sponsor terrorism state.
For example, in the case of Iran, which was designated as a sponsor of terrorism in 1984, the U.S. had begun implementing systemic sanctions back in November 1979 [when a group of hostages were taken at the American embassy - ed.]. Not only did the U.S. government freeze all Iranian government property and assets, but it banned all trade between the U.S. and Iran.
Thanks to these measures, about 50 billion dollars in Iranian assets were used to pay compensation to American victims of Iranian terrorism, notably, the U.S. Embassy hostages in Tehran and their families.
North Korea was first added to the list in 1988 after it blew up a South Korean passenger plane. Twenty years later, during the presidency of George W. Bush, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was removed from the list of terrorist states, because it had agreed to wind down its nuclear programme (although it never did).
On 9 December 2016, the US Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) added North Korea to its list of challenging jurisdictions that cause significant concern due to money laundering. On 20 November 2017, it was returned to the blacklist of states sponsoring terrorism. Trade with this country is limited to food, medicine and other humanitarian goods; and all these goods require a licence from the U.S government. Foreign aid from America to North Korea is minimal and intended mainly for refugees leaving that country.
Cuba is a unique case. The U.S. imposed comprehensive sanctions against it in 1960. Cuba was added to the list of states sponsoring terrorism in 1982. Then the Reagan administration issued a series of documents that proved Cuba's support for revolutionary groups in Latin America that attacked civilians.
In December 2014, President Barack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the easing of diplomatic and economic restrictions while waiting for Congress to review the sanctions.
On 29 May 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry removed the Cuban government from the list. However, President Donald Trump reversed course early in his term, and introduced new sanctions within four years.
We see that each of the countries on the list of terrorist states has its own story and reasons for being placed on it. Russia is no exception and has a history of sanctions imposed by the U.S., the EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It would seem that nothing extraordinary would happen if russia were to be given the status it fully deserves: that of a state sponsor of terrorism.
Economic sanctions really do work
Why is this important? Comprehensive economic sanctions against russia are currently the most effective of all non-military means of influence.
We have repeatedly observed that russia's military-political leadership has sent signals of being prepared to negotiate with the West regarding the war in Ukraine through unofficial channels: via the former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Gerhard Schröder, by organising pro-russian rallies in EU countries, and through gas blackmail. But these have been subject to certain conditions.
Among these conditions, usually behind the smoke screen of Kremlin propaganda about
the denazification, federalisation and demilitarisation of Ukraine, the same core message is heard every time: lift the sanctions. It shows that sanctions are harassing [russia], and therefore they are effective.
Obviously, such a policy results in losses to certain countries and to the global economy. But who can count what these losses would be if the free world, led by the U.S., did not put russia in its place in this situation?
Now the White House is invoking the grain agreement, the press secretary voicing its position that this is allegedly the only diplomatic achievement in this war, one that would be jeopardised by designating russia a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
In fact, the grain agreement is under threat by putin's progressive mental disorder.
The grain agreement will always be under attack, just like the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and just like vital civilian infrastructure, which is constantly under threat of missile strikes.
Refusal to designate russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism cannot protect us from this and will not improve the humanitarian situation in the occupied territories and in the frontline areas over the short term. Nor will it speed up putin's desire to sit down at the negotiating table. He always has something else that he can use to terrorise Ukraine and the world.
This is the new reality in which we live, and it should be accepted. To change it, russia should be designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
Every day of the war in Ukraine means dozens of people killed and hundreds of people’s Lives ruined. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, since the beginning of russia’s full-scale invasion, at least 7,000 civilians have been killed, another 5,500 were injured as a result of attacks by russian occupiers. These are officially recorded cases of civilian deaths.
We can only imagine what the situation is like in the temporarily occupied territories, especially in Mariupol and in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts. How many Buchas and Irpins we will see after the liberation?
Every day of the war means houses, kindergartens and schools destroyed. At least 115,900 private houses, 15,300 high-rise apartment buildings, 44 social centres, 1,118 secondary schools, 978 medical institutions and 511 administrative buildings have been damaged, destroyed or captured in Ukraine.
Moreover, there is a real threat of an accident at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. In a worst case scenario, it will be necessary to evacuate more than 400,000 people from the surrounding areas.
This is a blow to international law and to the legal order established after the Second World War within the framework of the UN and other organisations. Let’s now focus on russia’s ignoring of the first decision of the UN International Court of Justice in The Hague, dated 16 March, which ordered russia to immediately stop the military invasion of Ukraine.
After all, every day of the war in Ukraine is a direct path to a Third World War, with
which the ex-president of russia and current deputy head of the russian security council threatens the world. The key to overcoming this challenge is now in the hands of the United States and the American government – the State Department and President Biden.
Andrii Pyshnyi, a member of the Yermak-McFaul Expert Group on Russian Sanctions, holds a PhD in law and was chairman of the board of Oschadbank in 2014-2020
Part of the special project "Russia is a Terrorist State"