Why designating Putin’s Russia a ‘terrorist state’ could backfire

Long-range missiles and heavy weaponry may be key to breaking the Russian military’s back in Ukraine, but is blackballing Vladimir Putin’s regime as a terrorist state also an essential step in bringing Vladimir Putin to heel?

For months, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy has been urging the world to deepen Russia’s isolation by branding it with the “terrorist” designation, relegating it to the rogue-state ranks of North Korea, Iran and Syria.

The United States Senate is on board, and has urged the State Department and the Biden administration to act. Five ex-Communist countries have done so as well. And the issue resurfaced this week with both the European Parliament and lawmakers from NATO countries passing resolutions urging their respective governments to get on board.

The toxic “terrorist” label, which has no agreed-upon definition in international law, nevertheless serves as a symbolic rebuke to any existing claims Russia makes to being a respected and law-abiding member of the international community. But being so branded carries practical implications as well.

The European Parliament’s resolution calls on countries to end all co-operation with Russia, freeze contacts with Russian officials, expel ambassadors and introduce economic and diplomatic restrictions against the country or any states that maintain contact with Russia.

“My view is that in order for this war to end, we’ve got to be tough,” Charlie Weimer, a Swedish member of the European Parliament who helped draft the EU resolution, said from Strasbourg, France.

“We’ve got to do whatever it takes to minimize the Russian war effort.”

Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic have already designated Putin’s Russia a terrorist state or sponsor of terrorism due to the invasion of Ukraine and attacks on civilian infrastructure. Some motions, such as those of Lithuania and Latvia, made reference to other controversial incidents, including Russia’s military support of Syria, its brutal suppression of Chechen rebels and the attempted poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in London — an attack attributed to Russian military intelligence agents.

The Baltic states, which share borders with Russia, have used the listing to justify the freezing of EU visas for Russian citizens, while Lithuanian lawmakers are reportedly considering further measures to ban companies from doing business with Russia or Russians.

The US has officially designated Syria, Iran, North Korea and Cuba as “state sponsors of terror” — a designation that comes with a ban on foreign aid, defense exports, economic sanctions and a lifting of state immunity, meaning that successful lawsuits brought in US court could be settled through the sale of seized assets.

But asked whether he would consider designating Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, US President Joe Biden’s response was brief and blunt: “No.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in October that the designation could make it more difficult to get humanitarian aid into Ukraine and more difficult to get Ukrainian grain — a vital export for the country’s war-shattered economy — out to the world.

Despite the Ukrainian government’s repeated calls to take just such a step, Jean-Pierre added: “We believe it could limit Mr. Zelenskyy’s flexibility at the negotiating table if and when it gets to that point.”

It is indeed complicated to negotiate anything with a terrorist entity — peace all the more so.

Under former US president Barack Obama, a deal was struck to shelve Iran’s nuclear weapon program in exchange for relief against economic sanctions. But the deal was scrapped by then-president Donald Trump, and efforts to strike a new agreement have so far been unsuccessful due to Tehran’s crackdown on protesters and its military support for Russia in Ukraine.

Trump also sought to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korean President Kim Jong-un. In 2019, Trump became the first American leader to set foot on North Korean territory as he sought to forge an agreement with his counterpart.

“Stepping across that line was a great honor,” he said at the time.

But the deal was never reached and, to this day, North Korea assumed the role of the rogue regime, putting its Asian neighbors on alert with unannounced ballistic missile tests and bombastic threats.

International Crisis Group, an independent organization that monitors conflict and provides policy advice, warned in August that a US move to designate Russia a state sponsor of terror would be a dangerous and shortsighted move.

On top of impeding a potential peace deal with Kyiv or complicating deliveries of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, the listing could prevent Washington and Moscow from working together on global crises unrelated to the conflict, or at forums such as the UN Security Council.

It could also imperil efforts to have American political prisoners Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner released from Russian prisons.

And it has little chance of changing the course of the war, the organization concluded.

If sanctions, war crimes probes and international condemnation have not swayed Putin in the war’s first nine months, “it is hard to imagine that this terrorism listing will be the straw that finally breaks Moscow’s resolve to keep fighting the war.”

Under Canada’s State Immunity Act, the government has the power to list countries as “state supporters of terror” if they are deemed to have provided support to a designated terrorist organization. Only two countries — Iran and Syria — have been so listed, and as such can be sued in Canadian courts by terrorism victims.

When the designation was announced, in September 2012, then-foreign affairs minister John Baird cited Iran’s human rights record; its safe harbor and material support for Hezbollah, a listed terror group; the Iranian regime’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war; its threats against Israel; and its failure to abide by UN resolutions to cease its nuclear enrichment program.

Canada gave Iranian diplomats in Canada five days to leave the country and closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran. Canada expelled Syrian diplomats from Canada in May 2012 to protest a massacre of more than 100 civilians in the region of Houla.

But Canada has only designated one pro-Russian group — the neo-Nazi and paramilitary Russian Imperial Movement — as a terrorist entity.

“There are also other organizations that Russia sponsors that engage in terrorism that we just haven’t designated and that ought not to be an excuse,” says Orest Zakydalsky, senior policy adviser to the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

European lawmakers and advocates are following Estonia’s lead in pushing for the private Russian military company Wagner Group, run by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, to be designated as a terrorist group due to its actions in Ukraine, Syria and several African conflicts, most notably the Central African Republic.

Zakydalsky argued that the breakaway Ukrainian territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, which Russia recognized as sovereign states and then annexed, should also be designated terrorist organizations.

“Just because we haven’t designated them as such shouldn’t be used as an excuse to take this step,” he said.

Practically, doing so might allow Ukrainians, such as the thousands who have been accepted into Canada as war refugees, to sue Russia and seek financial compensation in Canadian courts.

The Trudeau government has not weighed in on whether, in addition to the economic sanctions, it is favorable to applying this addition pressure tactic against Moscow. But the resolution passed Monday at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly — and supported by Canadian MPs and senators — might force the government to give it deeper consideration.

The resolution was short, crisp and declarative, calling on governments in the 30 member states “to state clearly that the Russian state under the current regime is a terrorist one.”

“The Canadian delegation was there, and we voted in favor of this resolution,” said Toronto Liberal MP Julie Dzerowicz, who is head of the Canadian delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

She acknowledged that there is no internationally agreed upon definition of what constitutes terrorism but argued that Russia’s listing is merited due to the savage attacks on Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure as the cold weather arrives.

“They’re very deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure like hospitals and schools and other medical facilities,” she said upon her return to Ottawa. “They are also directly targeting power stations and water supplies. If you talk to Ukrainians, they go one further and say that’s genocide.”

She intends to report back to the government but admitted that listing or not listing Russia as a supporter of terror is a decision above her pay grade.

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress, for its part, is still hopeful that the Trudeau government will take up the call, if only because their recommendation has never been explicitly rejected.

But Canada’s silence on the matter is exasperating, said Zakydalsky.

“What else would the Russians have to do?” he asked. “It’s kind of hard for me to come up with a level of brutality they have not engaged in, and what is the difference between what Russia has done and what Syria or Iran have done.

“The three of them are doing the same thing,” he said. “Why are two of them terrorists and one isn’t?”

Allan Woods is a Montreal-based staff reporter for the Star. He covers global and national affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @WoodsAllan

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