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Biden should swiftly put Russia on terror list

Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, on April 7, 2022.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s effective diplomacy and ability to nudge Western allies to act have helped enable Ukraine to not just hold off Moscow’s aggression, but to repel it and humiliate a world power. Even so, he surely knows that as his country enters the third month of war with Russia, the clock is ticking. The United States understands this, too.

“Time is not on Ukraine’s side,” said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a recent meeting of NATO and non-NATO military leaders in Germany.

That’s why the United States has a short window to respond to Zelensky’s request — made during a phone call to President Biden in mid-April — for the United States to add Russia to the U.S. government’s State Sponsor of Terrorism list (SSTL), one of the most damaging and damning sanctions in America’s arsenal. Doing so would signal to America’s friends and foes that the U.S. is done leading from behind during the world’s most consequential moments.

Here are five reasons that designating Russia as a terrorist state is the right move now. 

Russia already meets the legal criteria for listing. Russia’s behavior, especially its assassination program targeting defectors such as Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal, is comparable to the activities that led the State Department to add North Korea back to the SSTL in 2017. Additionally, Moscow continues to provide sanctuary to the U.S.-designated terrorist group known as the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM). Incidentally, according to the RIM’s VKontakte (Russia’s equivalent to Facebook), the group is fighting in Ukraine. As if this weren’t enough, Russia allows the leader of the white supremacist group known as the Base — which has plotted attacks on U.S. soil — to operate from St. Petersburg.

Adding Russia would provide more, not less, leverage. While some experts have argued that listing Russia would limit U.S. diplomatic flexibility and crush the possibility of engagement with Vladimir Putin, this simply isn’t the case. Putting aside the fact that Putin hasn’t seriously entertained negotiations, U.S. diplomats are not prohibited from engaging directly with representatives from countries that sponsor terrorism. I know this from working on the State Sponsor of Terrorism list while at State for a decade. North Korea desperately wanted off the list and was willing to dismantle — albeit, not as permanently — a nuclear reactor for being removed from the list in 2008. Libya, under Moammar Gadhafi, was developing weapons of mass destruction programs, but he gave up those aspirations when Libya was removed from the SSTL. Finally, even while Sudan was on the SSTL, it kicked out Osama bin Laden at the behest of the U.S. government and afterward would provide vital information to the U.S. intelligence community regarding a wide range of terrorist actors. 

The bottom line is this: adding Russia to the list would provide the U.S. government useful leverage with Moscow. Russia does not want to be on the short list with other state sponsors of terror such as Syria, Iran, Cuba and North Korea. The designation would be a big deal, and  removal from the list later could be used as a “carrot” to get Russia to acquiesce on Ukrainian-related issues.

Doing so would be a warning shot to other bad actors. There are certainly more than four countries that provide support to terrorist groups but aren’t on the SSTL. Pakistan, for example, historically has supported groups on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Even evidence that indicated Pakistan’s intelligence service may have provided support to Lashkar e-Tayyiba in its deadly 2008 attack in Mumbai, India, was not enough to add Pakistan to the list. The list of State Sponsors is too short, but adding Russia to that list would go a long way in rectifying clear omissions. Moreover, it may send an important signal to other countries that think they can get away with supporting terrorist actors or engaging in an unrelenting campaign of terror against civilians — as Russia has in Ukraine. Designating Moscow would send a warning shot around the globe signaling the high cost of terrorist activities.

The consequences for Russia would be severe. While Russia is no doubt feeling a tight economic squeeze, Putin has scoffed at the current array of sanctions targeting the Russian Federation. Adding Russia to the SSTL would be more than a symbolic act. It would widen the scope of sanctions, perhaps most importantly putting on the table secondary sanctions against countries, such as China, that continue to prop up Russia. In fact, those sanctions that stem from the SSTL can be preemptively waived only by the president of the United States. Adding Russia to the list also would expand the scope of dual-use exports that could be sent to Russia, and it  would require the U.S. to vote against International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans that Russia may request. Given Russia’s current economic state, that’s an important consequence. Finally, the reputational risk of companies who’ve decided to remain in Russia would increase. Thus, the SSTL likely would prompt flight from Russia by holdout corporations.

Russia could work its way off the list. While it is easier to add countries to the SSTL, it is not impossible to unwind this sanction. In less than 15 years, three countries have been removed (North Korea and Cuba later were re-added). The argument that Russia shouldn’t be added to the list because it is hard to remove countries is not a credible one. Such meekness calls into question the resolve the United States has in countering Russia’s aggression. And while it is true that even at the height of the Cold War that the United States did not list Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, it is also true that Putin’s aggression today in Ukraine would make even the bellicose Nikita Khrushchev blush. After all, Russia’s hostility may be the most significant threat to international peace and stability since World War II.

As Ukraine’s south and east are under siege and Russia’s human rights abuses and terrorism escalate, President Biden should immediately accede to Zelensky’s request to add Russia to the rolls of State Sponsors of Terrorism. It is a moniker that Russia and Putin have earned, and it is past time for them to join the world’s hall of shame.

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and was director of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office in the Bureau of Counterterrorism from 2008 to 2018. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Blazakis

Tags Joe Biden Mark Milley Russian invasion of Ukraine sanctions on russia State sponsor of terrorism list Volodymyr Zelensky

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