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Designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism

Jhe Senate has repeatedly expressed its support for the designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. The Biden administration, however, definitively rejected these appeals in mid-September. Nonetheless, to circumvent the executive branch, bills that would legislatively mandate a terrorist designation are now advancing in both the House and the Senate — and that’s a good thing.

So far, only the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have declared Russia a terrorist state. Due to their small size, this had a limited impact. On the other hand, a designation of terrorist by the United States would have very significant consequences. Its symbolic value would eclipse what has been achieved in the Baltics, cementing Russia’s pariah status in most developed countries. Economically, it would strengthen and extend sanctions against Moscow, restrict access to debt relief and international financing, and nullify Russia’s right to sovereign immunity. Without sovereign immunity, Russia could be sued in US courts, with any damages awarded taken from the country’s frozen assets.

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Opponents argue that a terrorist designation would be counterproductive. They say the United States needs diplomatic maneuvering space, without which it will be more difficult to pressure Russia to end the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin may become more convinced that the United States is pushing for regime change, strengthening his resolve to push the war forward. He could demand that sanctions be lifted before agreeing to peace – but terrorist designations are difficult to rescind once applied. Washington and Moscow also collaborate on multilateral aid and peacekeeping missions, often through the United Nations, but a terrorist designation could jeopardize that. Damages awarded to US citizens in new lawsuits could siphon off funds that should be sent to Ukrainians. Finally, given the litany of sanctions and condemnations that Russia already faces, would a terrorist designation have any real impact?

These are understandable but erroneous objections – ones that suffer from some logical inconsistency. You cannot claim that a terrorist designation would be both inconsequential and devastating. If you think that this designation would have negligible economic and symbolic impacts, you cannot claim that it would destroy the remaining space for diplomatic maneuver and upset multilateral cooperation.

It has been argued that the United States could change the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act so that legal damages are reserved for Ukrainians. There are unresolved complications with this solution, such as whether some damages could be used to cover legal costs and whether it is productive to remove the financial incentive of lawsuits. But it offers a start.

Simply put, the downsides of designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism are not as compelling as they might seem at first glance. The Biden administration should not undermine legislative attempts to expose Russian behavior for what it is.

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Adam Zivo is a Canadian columnist and political analyst who moved to Ukraine earlier this year to report on the Russian-Ukrainian war. He is writing a book about how war is experienced by average Ukrainians.

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