Washington – The Senate unanimously supports it. So did the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, along with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the Ukrainian Parliament.
But Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken isn’t so sure.
For weeks, pressure has been mounting on Mr. Blinken to officially declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation currently reserved for North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Iran. But despite the emotional appeal, Mr. Blinken is resisting a move that could force him to punish US allies who do business with Russia and could wipe out the remaining remnants of diplomacy between Washington and Moscow.
Amid anger over Russia’s brutal military campaign in Ukraine, the US Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a non-binding decision Mr. Blinken called for Russia to be labeled a sponsor of terrorism because of its attacks in Ukraine, as well as in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria, which led to the “killing of countless innocent men, women and children”.
“For me, Putin is now sitting at the head of a state terrorist apparatus,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and one of the sponsors of the resolution, told reporters after the vote. He said the sanctions already imposed on Russia “have been effective, but we need to do more.”
This month, Mr. Graham and Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, Mr. Zelensky visited In Kyiv they presented him with a framed copy of their decision.
But Mr. Blinken responded noncommittally when asked about the issue on Thursday, echoing what other State Department and White House officials have said. He said any decision would have to be based on existing legal definitions, while also noting that the point was moot because Russia was already subject to many sanctions.
“The costs that we have imposed on Russia by us and by other countries are perfectly in line with the consequences of its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Mr. Blinken told a news conference. “So the practical implications of what we’re doing are the same.”
Mr. Blinken’s hand, however, may be compelled. While the Senate resolution was just a call to action without legal force, a group of House Democrats on Thursday Submit a new action Which, if passed by Congress and signed into law, would terminate the State Department and add Russia to its list of US sponsors of terrorism.
The State Department’s discovery that Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism — a designation that agency officials refer to as the “nuclear option” — will lead to more sanctions on Russia’s battered economy, including sanctions on countries that do business with Moscow. It would also waive traditional legal barriers that prevent ordinary citizens from suing foreign governments for reparations, including for the families of American volunteers killed or injured fighting Russia in Ukraine.
Analysts say that could lead to the permanent severing of limited diplomatic relations between the Biden administration and Moscow, which Mr. Blinken has described as important to his safety.
In a reminder of this dynamic, Mr. Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei V. Lavrov, by phone on Thursday and pressed him to accept a proposal to release two Americans, Britney Greiner and Paul N. Whelan, but reported it. No penetration. This was their first conversation since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Over the course of the war, Mr. Zelensky has publicly advocated designating terrorism, and last month spoke of the “urgent need to legalize it”. The House is preparing to vote on a resolution similar to the Senate version, with strong support from Pelosi.
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The dispute between the Biden administration and Congress over the nomenclature has echoed debates since the start of the Ukraine War, when the first evidence of the atrocities emerged. When congressional leaders, including Mrs. Pelosi, accused the Russian military of committing war crimes, Mr. Blinken was cautious, citing legal standards and the need for evidence and investigation. But on March 16, President Biden replaced that position by declaring Mr. Putin a “war criminal.”
Biden’s rhetorical announcement angered the Kremlin, but it had no political implications. This would not be the case with the official classification of terrorism.
A senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss policy deliberations, expressed concern that such action would limit the administration’s ability to exempt some transactions with Russia from Western sanctions. The official did not specify the activities, but the United States, for example, took care to ensure that Russian food exports were not affected by trade sanctions.
Legal experts say the Secretary of State has broad freedom to impose different labels on other countries or groups. But the department prefers to use appointments only under specific circumstances.
According to the State Department, the terrorism designation leads to restrictions on US foreign aid, restrictions on certain exports of “dual-use” technology items that may have military applications, and bans on defense exports and sales.
Much of that is covered by existing sanctions. Mr Graham said on Wednesday the outcome could force the United States to move forward, by adding new restrictions on how third-party countries interact with Russia without fear of US sanctions.
“That means dealing with Russia, with that rating, is going to be very difficult,” Graham said.
Experts said the diplomatic cost of such a move could be significant and that Mr. Putin could expel all US diplomats from the country. So far, Moscow has allowed the US Embassy in Moscow to remain open and for some diplomats to stay, including Ambassador John Sullivan.
Even during the Ukraine war, the United States wants to continue working with Russia on some issues, including international talks with Iran on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal to which Moscow was a party and from which President Donald J. Trump withdrew.
“For diplomacy, it is not practical to designate a country with which the United States has a multifaceted relationship,” said Brian Finucane, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group who recently worked on military and counterterrorism issues at the State Department.
But some proponents of the classification would not mind Russia’s further isolation.
“The state sponsor of terrorism designation puts Russia in a very small club,” Mr. Blumenthal said on Wednesday. It consists of countries such as Syria, Iran and Cuba outside the borders of civilized countries. They are outcasts.”
US officials have so far used this designation primarily in cases in which a country or its proxy has committed a precisely targeted non-military act, such as bombing a civilian airliner.
“US officials want a clear definition between terrorism and the type of conflict in which the US military might be involved in combat operations,” Mr. Finucane said.
In 2019, Trump officials discussed a proposal to impose a “foreign terrorist organization” designation on part of Iran’s military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Pentagon officials opposed the move, fearing creating a precedent that might call for other countries to impose a similar designation on the United States due to the actions of the US military.
President Trump overruled this objection. As part of negotiations to restore a nuclear deal, Iran demanded that the Biden administration rescind the designation, but Mr. Biden refused.
Once the terrorist designation was announced, it was often seen by US officials as politically risky for revocation, even in a new administration with differing opinions. In one of his recent actions in the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” a move the Biden administration has not yet retracted, despite doubts about its justification. (Mr. Trump did remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism as part of the 2020 deal to normalize relations with Israel).
Mr. Trump also designated North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism in 2017, although President George W. Bush raised that designation in 2008.
Daniel Byman, Senior Fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Wrote At the time, the US approach to state sponsorship of terrorism had “many flaws”. Among them, he said, was the fact that some of the obvious candidates, including Pakistan – which Washington considers a partner but whose intelligence services are linked to the Taliban and anti-India terrorist groups – somehow evaded this designation.
Charlie Savage Contribute to the preparation of reports.