As the U.S. Congress continues negotiations on approving the stalled border security deal and military aid package for key allies, U.S. President Joe Biden can act today – with or without Congress – to make Russia pay in some measure for its heinous crimes against Ukraine. The U.S. State Department should, without delay, designate the Russian Federation as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST), officially classifying Russia among its closest global allies: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria.
The case for Russia’s designation is clear. In the days surrounding New Year’s alone, Russia fired 500 missiles and drones over primarily civilian targets in Ukraine, killing dozens and injuring hundreds more. The indiscriminate bombardments hit schools, shopping malls, kindergartens, and hospitals (including a maternity ward in the city of Dnipro), as well as critical infrastructure like gas and power lines, which have no military value and are off-limits under the international laws of war. Some of these missiles were delivered from North Korea, in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions that Russia itself supported but now has gravely violated.
The SST label applies to countries that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” and would trigger penalties such as a ban on defense sales and prohibit the sale of dual-use items. Other sanctions could also be enhanced, including designating and blocking Russian officials’ assets and banning them from entering the United States. Many of these penalties already apply to Russia, especially since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
More importantly, designating Russia as an SST would show that, despite our internal political differences, the United States still cares when a dictator repeatedly and purposefully commits heinous acts and will take all appropriate action to call out and deter such behavior. It would also be a strong statement of support for a democratic ally at perhaps the most difficult period in its modern history.
The SST designation could certainly trigger consequences from Russia, such as the Kremlin ending talks on releasing American hostages held in Russia or even suspending diplomatic relations with the United States. But if the Kremlin hasn’t done this yet after American-made and -supplied weapons caused the demise of over 300,000 of its troops, Moscow is unlikely to take such a step after an SST designation.
The SST is also one issue where Congress and the administration would be closely aligned. During my time in the Senate, I spearheaded bipartisan legislation that would support such a designation. In 2022, a similar resolution by Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut passed the Senate. Moreover, the European Parliament applied the label to Russia in November 2022, setting a notable precedent.
The arguments against applying such a toxic label need to be taken seriously, but the benefits far outweigh those concerns, given Russia’s continued pattern of terroristic behavior and crimes against humanity going back decades, from heinous abuses in Chechnya in the 1990s to Georgia, Syria, and now Ukraine.
Make no mistake: The SST designation isn’t a substitute for Congress speedily approving the desperately needed assistance package to Ukraine and other allies as soon as possible. While the Europeans have significantly stepped up their support for Ukraine – and should do more – they cannot carry this burden alone. A united front for Ukraine is especially vital as China, led by fellow dictator Xi Jinping, has doubled down on his support for the Kremlin.
When Russia is launching daily massive, deadly attacks against a major European country, it should be a bipartisan matter for us to take every and all action to help Ukraine and to deter Russia – and to do so now.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.