Blinken resists pressure to label Russia a terrorist state

WASHINGTON – The US Senate supports him unanimously. The same applies to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi along with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian Parliament.

But Secretary of State Antony 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 resists a move that could force him to sanction US allies doing deals with Russia and could erase the remaining traces of diplomacy between Washington and Moscow.

Amid outrage over Russia’s brutal military operation in Ukraine, the US Senate unanimously passed a non-binding resolution on Wednesday calling on Mr Blinken to blame Russia as a sponsor of terrorism in its resulting attacks in Ukraine, as well as Chechnya, Georgia and Syria to name “in the deaths of innumerable innocent men, women and children.”

“To me, Putin now sits at the head of a state terror apparatus,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and a co-sponsor of the resolution, told reporters after the vote. He said the sanctions already in place against Russia “have been effective, but we need to do more”.

This month, Mr. Graham and Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, visited Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv and presented him with a framed copy of their resolution.

But Mr Blinken responded noncommittally when asked about the issue on Thursday, echoing other State Department and White House officials. Any decision must be based on existing legal definitions, he said, while implying that the point is moot as Russia is already under many sanctions.

“The costs imposed on Russia by us and other countries are entirely consistent with the consequences that would result from being classified as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Mr Blinken told a news conference. “So the practical implications of what we’re doing are the same.”

However, Mr. Blinken’s hand can be forced. While the Senate resolution was merely a call to action with no legal force, a group of House Democrats on Thursday tabled a new measure that, if passed by Congress and signed into law, would end the State Department and add Russia to the U.S. list the sponsors of terror.

A State Department finding that Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism – a label officials have dubbed a “nuclear option” – would result in further sanctions against Russia’s struggling economy, including penalties for countries doing business with Moscow. It would also do away with traditional legal barriers that prevent private individuals from suing foreign governments for damages, potentially including the families of American volunteers killed or injured during the fight against Russia in Ukraine.

And it could sever the Biden administration‘s limited diplomatic ties with Moscow once and for all, analysts say, which Mr. Blinken called important to keep intact.

As a reminder of that dynamic, Mr. Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergey V. Lavrov by phone on Thursday, urging him to accept a proposal for the release of two Americans, Brittney Griner and Paul N. Whelan, but he reported no breakthrough. It was their first conversation since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Throughout the war, Mr. Zelensky has openly called for its classification as terrorism, speaking last month of “the urgent need to legislate it.” The House is preparing to vote on a resolution similar to the Senate’s version, with the strong support of Ms. Pelosis.

The disagreement between the Biden administration and Congress over the label echoes debates from the start of the Ukraine war, when the first evidence of atrocities surfaced. When congressional leaders, including Ms. Pelosi, accused the Russian military of committing war crimes, Mr. Blinken was cautious, citing legal criteria and the need for evidence and investigation. But on March 16, President Biden replaced that position by declaring Mr. Putin a “war criminal.”

Mr Biden’s rhetorical statement infuriated the Kremlin but had no political repercussions. This would not be the case with an official designation of terrorism.

A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss policy considerations, expressed concern that such a measure would limit the government’s ability to exempt some transactions with Russia from Western penalties. The official did not provide details on the activities, but the United States, for example, has made sure that Russian food exports are not affected by trade sanctions.

The foreign minister has wide latitude to impose different designations on other countries or groups, legal experts say. But the department prefers to only use the designations in certain circumstances.

According to the State Department, the designation as terrorism will result in restrictions on US foreign aid, restrictions on some exports of “dual-use” technology items that could have military applications, and a ban on arms exports and sales.

Much of this is covered by existing sanctions. But the finding could force the United States to go further, Graham said Wednesday, by adding new restrictions on how third countries can interact with Russia without fear of American penalties.

“It means doing business with Russia under that designation will be extremely difficult,” Graham said.

Experts said the diplomatic cost of such a move could be significant and that Mr Putin could expel all American diplomats from the country. So far, Moscow has allowed the US Embassy in Moscow to remain open and some diplomats, including Ambassador John J. Sullivan, to remain.

Even during the Ukraine war, the United States wants to work with Russia on some issues, including international talks with Iran to restore a 2015 nuclear deal that Moscow was a party to and from which President Donald J. Trump withdrew.

“It’s impractical for diplomacy to appoint a state with which the US has diverse relationships,” said Brian Finucane, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group who recently worked at the State Department on military and counterterrorism issues.

However, some proponents of the designation would not mind further isolating Russia.

“The classification as state sponsorship of terrorism puts Russia in a very small club,” Mr Blumenthal said on Wednesday. “It is made up of nations like Syria, Iran, Cuba, which are outside the borders of civilized countries. They are pariahs.”

American officials have primarily used the label in cases where a nation or its proxy has committed a narrowly targeted, non-military act, such as: B. the bombing of a civilian aircraft.

“US officials want to draw a clear line between terrorism and the types of conflicts in which the US military may participate in combat operations,” Mr. Finucane said.

In 2019, Trump officials debated a proposal to impose the “foreign terrorist organization” label on part of Iran’s military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Pentagon officials opposed the move, fearing it would set a precedent that might invite other countries to impose a similar designation on the United States based on the actions of the American military.

President Trump dismissed this objection. As part of negotiations to restore a nuclear deal, Iran has urged the Biden administration to scrap the label, but Mr. Biden has refused.

Once announced, a terrorist designation is often considered politically risky by US officials to reverse, even in a new administration with different views. In one of his final acts in the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labeled Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” a move the Biden administration has yet to reverse, despite skepticism about its justification. (Mr Trump removed Sudan from the list of terror sponsors as part of a 2020 deal to normalize its ties with Israel.)

Mr. Trump also labeled North Korea a terror sponsor in 2017, although President George W. Bush lifted the label in 2008.

Daniel L. Byman, senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote at the time that the United States’ approach to state support for terrorism “has many flaws.” Among them, he said, is the fact that some obvious candidates, including Pakistan — which Washington sees as a partner whose intelligence agencies have ties to the Taliban and anti-Indian terrorist groups — have somehow eluded the label.

Charlie Savage contributed reporting.

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