By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
The US State Department is currently deliberating over this very question. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky thinks the answer is yes. Together with his ministers, he has spared no effort to remind American and European authorities that they should designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. If Russia meets the definition, then the only reason not to designate it as a state sponsor of terrorism is political—and American and European authorities have hardly been averse to placing politics above rigid criteria in making important decisions in the past.
If it does not, then the question is moot. My concern in this essay is to sidestep the politics and focus on the definition—or, rather, definitions used by the United States and Europe.
According to the US definition (6 USCS § 101), terrorism is “any activity that—(A) involves an act that—(i) is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources; and (ii) is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State or other subdivision of the United States; and (B) appears to be intended—(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
The European Union (Directive 2017/541) “exhaustively lists a number of serious crimes, such as attacks against a person’s life, as intentional acts that can qualify as terrorist offences when and insofar as committed with a specific terrorist aim, namely to seriously intimidate a population, to unduly compel a government or an international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any act, or to seriously destabilise or destroy the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation.”
Despite some differences, both definitions boil down to a few essential features: terrorism is criminal and violent, and it is meant to intimidate, coerce, or destroy. (The FBI’s definition of terrorism is thus closest to the mark: “Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organisations or nations [state-sponsored].”)
Neither the US nor the European definition technically precludes states or state agencies from being terrorists—as opposed to simply sponsoring terrorism.
Indeed, the Trump administration admitted as much by designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation”.
Even though states can be terrorists, there is an important difference between state terrorism and war. Both definitions insist that terrorist acts must be crimes. Wars, in contrast, may be morally criminal, but they are not crimes. War crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide would qualify as terrorist acts because they violate international law and most domestic laws.
Two more definitions
“State sponsors of terrorism” are, according to the US State Department, “countries determined by the secretary of state to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” A state sponsor is different from a “terrorist group,” which the Europeans define as “a structured group of more than two persons, established for a period of time and acting in concert to commit terrorist offences….”
A terrorist state therefore commits acts of terrorism. A state sponsor of terrorism supports terrorist groups. So, is Putin’s Russia a state sponsor of terrorism and/or a terrorist state?
The first question was already raised and answered several years ago. In 2015, the British political scientist Taras Kuzio argued that Russia was sponsoring terrorism in the separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. (I made the same case in 2014.)
In 2018, Daniel L. Byman of the Center for Middle East Policy flatly concluded that “Russia is indeed a sponsor of terrorism” in Syria, Afghanistan, and eastern Ukraine.
As Kuzio said, “Donbas separatist groups fit the definition of ‘international terrorism’ and there are multiple sources that point to Russian training and military support for violent separatist and terrorist groups in Ukraine. “Russia’s use of special forces in the spring to back the initial separatist campaign, Moscow’s extensive supply of high-tech weapons such as the BUK missile system that shot down the Malaysian civilian airliner, and training of separatist and terrorist groups classify Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Moscow’s support of the terrorist activities listed by Kuzio only increased in the eight years between Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and the full-scale war unleashed by Putin in 2022. If the arguments for considering Russia a state sponsor of terrorism in Ukraine were valid then—as they were, they should also hold for all the criminal acts of violence the separatists pursued in order to intimidate, coerce, or destroy since 2014-2105.
The second question has been conclusively answered in the last three months.
According to a recently-released independent report conducted by the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, “there are: 1) reasonable grounds to conclude Russia is responsible for (i) direct and public incitement to commit genocide, and (ii) a pattern of atrocities from which an inference of intent to destroy the Ukrainian national group in part can be drawn.”
And, as secretary of state Anthony Blinken said on March 23, “the US government assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.” Ukraine, meanwhile, has already identified more than 600 war-crime suspects.
In sum, Russia is both a terrorist state and, together with North Korea, Cuba, Syria, and Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism. Were Washington so inclined, it would be perfectly justified in designating Russia as such and imposing “restrictions on US foreign assistance; a ban on defence exports and sales; certain controls over exports of dual use items; and miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.”
So, too, would the Europeans.
Most important, as the State Department inelegantly puts it, “Designation under the above-referenced authorities also implicates other sanctions laws that penalize persons and countries engaging in certain trade with state sponsors.”
This means that the United States would be able to impose punitive measures on those countries outside of Europe and North America that import to and export from Russia.
Whether Washington would want to is, of course, another matter.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark.