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Is Russia a terrorist state?

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
Ukrainian Lubov Oleinikova, 83, cries inside her building damaged during a Russian attack in Kherson, southern Ukraine, on Nov. 25, 2022. A barrage of missiles struck the recently liberated city in a marked escalation of attacks since Russia withdrew two weeks ago following an eight-month occupation.

Three European institutions have called Russia a “terrorist state” in the past few weeks. Although all three are advisory bodies that do not make policy, their declarations are important because they represent public opinion and signal a shift from trying to accommodate Russia to treating it as an irredeemable pariah. Can the U.S. State Department, which thus far has resisted adding Vladimir Putin’s empire to its list of terrorist states (Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria) be far behind?

On Oct. 13, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe began its devastating critique of Putin’s war against Ukraine by stating, “This aggression must be unequivocally condemned as a crime in itself, as a violation of international law and as a major threat to international peace and security.” It continues with a long litany of crimes, and then “calls on Council of Europe member States to … declare the current Russian regime as a terrorist one.”

On Nov. 21, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly followed suit by resolving that it “URGES member governments and parliaments of the North Atlantic Alliance … to state clearly that the Russian Federation under the current regime, whose forces are launching indiscriminate attacks, and deliberately and systematically targeting civilian objects and critical infrastructure in Ukraine, acts as a state that supports and perpetrates terrorism and war crimes.”

And on Nov. 23, the European Parliament — which, far more than the other two institutions, reflects the mood of European society — declared that it “underlines that the deliberate attacks and atrocities carried out by the Russian Federation against the civilian population of Ukraine, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and other serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law amount to acts of terror against the Ukrainian population and constitute war crimes; expresses its unreserved outrage at and condemnation of these attacks and atrocities and the other acts that Russia has committed in pursuit of its destructive political aims in Ukraine and on the territory of other countries; in the light of the above, recognizes Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and as a state which uses means of terrorism.”

Although these three institutions do not make policy, their views clearly indicate that the collective Europe has lost patience with Putin and his Russia. After nine months of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, Europeans appear to have had enough. And the harshness of the language they use demonstrates that they are no longer pulling their punches. Policymakers and diplomats may need to be somewhat more reserved in their criticism of Russia, but even they cannot ignore the views of three institutions expressing identical opinions within a few weeks of one another.

Europeans may complain about high energy prices and a coming cold winter, but Russia’s hopes of their breaking rank with Ukraine and kowtowing to Moscow are sure to remain unfulfilled. Ukraine can be certain of continuing to receive weapons, ammunition and humanitarian and financial assistance for the foreseeable future.

That the two parliamentary assemblies and the European Parliament all agree that Russia is terrorist is also important because it settles the question of appropriate and accurate terminology for describing the Putin regime. It’s terrorist, and one need no longer fear being accused of Cold War hyperbole, American supremacy, or inveterate Russophobia. If the compromise-prone Europeans believe that Russia is terrorist, they must be right.

On Sept. 14, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced a bipartisan resolution, “Russia is a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” accusing Moscow of grave “atrocities,” “war crimes” and “genocide” in Ukraine, but the Biden administration has resisted designating Russia a state sponsor of terrorism — even though the shoe fits by any definition of terrorism. And if there were any doubts, they surely have been dispelled by Russia’s intentional bombardment of Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure in the past two months.

The administration’s resistance appears to be grounded in two primary fears. First, that such a designation is hard to undo and, thus, could serve as an obstacle to a potential peace. And second, that Russia could follow up on such a designation by breaking diplomatic relations with the United States, thereby hampering potential progress on a score of other important issues, such as arms control. Both fears are legitimate, though their relevance after nine months of Russia’s genocidal war, brazen indifference to international norms, and implied willingness to use nuclear weapons may be moot. Could one really argue that designating Nazi Germany a terrorist state in 1944 would have hampered the democratic world’s cooperation with Berlin?

In any case, the pressure on the Biden administration to make this leap will increase now that even the far more cautious Europeans have taken three bold steps. 

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

Tags Russia under Vladimir Putin Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian war crimes State Sponsors of Terrorism Ukraine genocide Vladimir Putin

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