Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made a direct appeal to President Biden for the United States to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, one of the most powerful and far-reaching sanctions in the U.S. arsenal.
Biden did not commit to specific actions during the call, these people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive dialogue between the two leaders. The president has told his Ukrainian counterpart he is willing to explore a range of proposals to exert greater pressure on Moscow, they added.
Even during the Cold War, Washington refrained from designating the Soviet Union in this manner despite Moscow’s support for groups considered terrorist actors throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Such a measure could have a range of impacts, including the imposition of economic penalties on dozens of other nations that continue to do business with Russia, the freezing of Moscow’s assets in the United States, including real estate, and the prohibition of a variety of exports that have both commercial and military uses..
Zelensky’s proposal comes as Washington seeks to hold together its delicate network of alliances amid rising energy prices and mounting inflation that have been exacerbated by the unprecedented array of sanctions against Russia.
“Adding Russia to the state sponsors of terrorism list would be the nuclear economic option,” Jason Blazakis, a former State Department official and expert on terrorism designations, wrote in a recent essay.
Since 1979, Republican and Democratic administrations have used the terror designation sparingly, targeting only a handful of pariah states where the United States has limited interests.
The label, which requires a finding by the secretary of state, can be applied to any country that has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” according to a State Department fact sheet. The list currently names four countries: North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Syria.
Some hawkish Republicans in Congress have pressed for the Biden administration to add Russia to the list. But administration officials have been noncommittal, saying only that they would consider the proposal, said a congressional aide familiar with the conversations.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked directly about U.S. support for the designation at a news conference last month, he said, “We are and we will look at everything.”
“Our focus first and foremost is on doing everything we can to help bring this war to a quick end, to stop the suffering of the Ukrainian people,” he told reporters at the State Department.
Zelensky’s voicing support for the measure adds momentum to the push as world leaders seek to support the Ukrainian president through ever-more-powerful military, economic and diplomatic means.
But some of Zelensky’s requests have been turned down in the past, including his demand for MiG-29 fighter jets that some NATO countries said risked starting a wider Russian war in Europe. He has also asked European countries to close their ports to Russian ships and to stop buying Russian oil, which they continue to do.
On the merits, designating Russia could be easier than it was for nations currently on the list. Cuba was added by the Trump administration in January 2021, shortly before Biden took office, for its refusal to extradite an American convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, as well as its support for a Colombian guerrilla movement. Opponents criticized the move as exploiting the designation for political purposes.
By contrast, Russia’s killing of civilians in Ukraine and Syria, its alleged assassinations and attempted assassinations of dissidents and spies in foreign countries, and its support for separatists in Ukraine accused by the United States of murder, rape and torture could more easily fit the State Department’s criteria.
“This proposition is not without merit,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Eurasia Center. “The question is, economically, what are the implications?”
The decision to add a country is significant because, once on the list, countries are rarely removed. Such a move typically requires an extraordinary event such as regime change — which brought about the removal of Iraq from the list in 2004 after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein — or a significant pivot in U.S. policy.
Cuba was removed from the list during the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Havana, a move that was reversed by the Trump administration. Sudan was taken off the list after 27 years as a part of the Trump administration’s effort to reward countries that normalize relations with Israel.
“The list has no room for improvement short of perfection,” wrote Daniel Byman in an analysis of the measure for the Brookings Institution, “so states that dramatically cut their support [for terrorism] but retain some residual ties do not benefit.”