In a July 30th address where he implored Ukrainian residents of Donetsk to flee their homes amidst intense Russian attacks in the province, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also called on the U.S. State Department to recognize the Russian government as a terrorist state. Zelensky’s plea comes as support grows in the U.S. for assigning this designation to Russia: a bipartisan group of representatives introduced the “Russia is a State Sponsor of Terrorism Act” in the House and the Senate unanimously passed a non-binding resolution calling on U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to make the designation.
Blinken, however, has resisted these calls due to the formal severing of diplomatic ties between the two countries such a designation would cause. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow remains open, leaving the possibility of future negotiation available. Blinken has also asserted that the U.S.’s enforcement of sanctions has the same effect as a terrorist state designation, stating that, “the practical effects of what we’re doing are the same.” A terrorism designation, according to the State Department, includes restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, a ban on defence exports and sales, controls over exports of dual-use items, miscellaneous financial restrictions, and other restrictions.
Supporters of the state sponsor of terrorism designation emphasize the atrocities committed by the Russian military and its proxies. “Russia supports proxies conducting terrorism against civilians around the globe, from Syria to Ukraine. By designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, this legislation increases consequences on Putin’s murderous behaviour,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, a co-sponsor of the aforementioned house bill.
On the other hand, Brian Finucane, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, reflected Blinken’s worries when acknowledging the severity of a terrorist state designation: “For diplomacy, it’s not practical to designate a state with which the U.S. has a multifaceted relationship.”
Designating Russia as a terrorist state should be the first step in a process of reform that provides an objective standard for the characteristics of a terrorist state. The U.S. code defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” Russia’s actions in Ukraine are applicable to this label, however, the label should be expanded to include even more actions and states. Any action that attacks an individual’s ability to exercise their rights should be characterized as terror; states that restrict individual rights do so with the threat of imprisonment or death, these threats constitute terror and prevent citizens from acting freely in their societies.
The U.S. has used terrorism designations politically in the past, ignoring states that abuse the human rights of their citizens and act aggressively for the sake of preserving diplomatic ties. It has reserved the label for notorious pariah states (which presently are Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Syria) and withheld the designation from authoritarian states with which it may desire to negotiate with in the future.
The non-objectivity of the U.S.’s use of the state sponsor of terrorism designation is evident in the case of Sudan, which had its designation lifted in 2020 after its transitional government agreed to normalize diplomatic ties with Israel as part of a Trump administration agenda to build an anti-Iranian coalition in the Middle East and North Africa. This removal ignored the tenuous structure of Sudan’s transitional government, which fell in a 2021 military coup. Sudan continues to repress anti-government protests and support the Rapid Support Forces, whose actions in the War in Darfur were classified as crimes against humanity according to Human Rights Watch.
The U.S. should not desire any “multifaceted relationship” with states like Sudan and should instead condemn them for their human rights abuses. Unless these states are willing to give up their power, any negotiation necessitates a legitimization of their authority.
Labelling Russia as a state supporter of terrorism would be a significant first step in proving that the U.S. takes human rights and democracy seriously and will not support authoritarian regimes for the sake of maintaining diplomatic relations.
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