The question arises because Crimean Peninsula is currently being occupied by thousands of well-armed men in uniforms that has no insignia who threaten to storm military installations and already occupied a few, as well as blocked many routes, etc. These people refuse to name the armed forces or nation. Everybody knows they are Russian forces, but Russia has officially disowned them: in response to the demand to call them off Putin declared that Russia has not deployed them and therefore cannot call them off.

Now, this raises a question: according to international law, are these people terrorists? Since they are not officially a part of any nation's armed forces, and yet they took control of land and population at the gunpoint (and fired a few shots already) how they are different from any other terrorist organization? I am not well-versed in it, but it seems to me that by the letter, disregarding the undeclared allegiance to Russia and considering only the official statements and their actions, they can indeed be declared terrorists, unless I'm missing something.

This leads to the second question: why don't NATO declare them terrorists and deploy its forces in Crimea as an anti-terrorist action? Because of Putin's denials that would not be an action against Russia but an action against terrorists. That would put Putin in a very awkward position: in order to prevent NATO from engaging these forces he would have to aknowledge that they are a part of Russian Army. The reversal of Russia's statement would in turn reduce his standing in the region, which is the main point of his multiple salvos at the neighbors I believe.

  • Depends. Was Al Capone a terrorist? How about Michael Vick? The line between criminal and terrorist would very fuzzy with this definition. Mar 9, 2014 at 3:06
  • Wikipedia says theres over 150 definitions for terrorists, so its a matter of opinion. Maybe these are Russian elite special forces or paramilitaries taking part in crimes against peace? Taking the position is not strong and might just make the US and EU look stupid and like liars, so when they do say someone is a terrorist it wont believed. Its good to stick to the facts, I think, so as not to hurt future positions.
    – Razie Mah
    Mar 9, 2014 at 3:35
  • 3
    Future positions?! If Putin is allowed to occupy countries with Russian minorities, much like Hitler occupied Checkoslovakia on the pretext that there were German minorities, and EU would let it go, much like Britain and France let Hitler get away with these occupation, then the "future positions" of the West would resembles those of 1939. You cannot pacify the bully with compliance.
    – Michael
    Mar 9, 2014 at 3:59
  • @Michael Yes. A crime against peace only is a good enough reason to act. Its a very serious thing. That's what Hitler did originally.
    – Razie Mah
    Mar 9, 2014 at 4:27
  • @AffableGeek - Al Capone didn't have a political goal he intended to achieve through acts of terror. Neither did Michael Vick. The difference is in goals, not just methods
    – user4012
    Mar 9, 2014 at 17:36

3 Answers 3


The definition of "terrorism" and "terrorist" was covered on this site before.

I will copy/paste the relevant parts of that answer first:

Since 1994, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly condemned terrorist acts using the following political description of terrorism:

"Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them."


A definition proposed by Carsten Bockstette at the George C. Marshall Center for European Security Studies, underlines the psychological and tactical aspects of terrorism:

Terrorism is defined as political violence in an asymmetrical conflict that is designed to induce terror and psychic fear (sometimes indiscriminate) through the violent victimization and destruction of noncombatant targets (sometimes iconic symbols). Such acts are meant to send a message from an illicit clandestine organization. The purpose of terrorism is to exploit the media in order to achieve maximum attainable publicity as an amplifying force multiplier in order to influence the targeted audience(s) in order to reach short- and midterm political goals and/or desired long-term end states."

Note that the political purposes and end goals of terrorism are 100% irrelevant - merely the tactics (targeting non-combatants on purpose).

As such, these forces fit at least 2 parts of terrorism definition: (1) Use of violence and (2) To achieve political goals.

However, unless I missed some recent facts, they have ONLY applied violence to military targets - border guards, military bases - and thus did NOT yet fit into the last necessary element: (3) Perpetrated deliberately on non-combatants.

So there's not any easy way for people to qualify these soldiers as unambiguous bona fide terrorists, since not everyone includes acts against armed forces under "terrorism".

At best, they are unlawful combatants.

As far as why NATO didn't deploy force against them there are 2 reasons:

  1. Legal: because Ukraine is not part of NATO and their government didn't explicitly ask for NATO involvement.

  2. Practical: Because Germany's Merkel has no gas; and Obama has no cojones (nor understanding of geopolitics); and likes leading from behind and making kissy kissy with bullies. It's a lot easier to pressure or betray your allies that are being bullied, than standing up to bullies. Just ask Mr Chamberlain.

  • Accepted, for 1st question. For the 2nd one, I'm not convinced. 1. Form what I hear from Ukraine relatives, they have been counting on EU. 2. Obama and Merkel should know better, precisely because they have heard of Champairlan. 3. NATO doesn't need invitation for an action against terrorism: remember that the raid on Bin Laden was a surprise for Pakistanis.
    – Michael
    Mar 9, 2014 at 21:15
  • 20-year US military veteran here. In our Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) training that we went through in boot camp (with later reminders), the legitimacy of a target depends entirely on whether it involved with conducting or supporting combat. A guy with a gun who is trying to shoot you is a legitimate target no matter what clothing he is wearing, as are they guys who supply his ammo and the guy who's giving him orders. People and places that are not involved in combat, and have no combat-related assets in their location, are off-limits.
    – EvilSnack
    Mar 10, 2020 at 12:39

To the general version of the question as phrased in the title, No. By definition, this could have made the colonial Americans and any other armed group engaging in revolution or dissension "terrorists" while their national identity was being forged, therefore a de facto or assumed or inferred identity could be applied until their identity is formally declared (There was no globally recognized "colonial America" nation while the American colonies fought together for their independence). Even a formal declaration of nation does not make that declaration beyond dispute. The American revolutionaries could be called belligerent because they were engaged in war. Terror is a motive that could move some groups, but at least in the case of the American Revolution, the desire was to increase freedom and put a stop to terror, contradicting that definition. Each sovereignty can choose to classify such groups as they themselves see fit, according to their own perceptions. One can hardly dispute that the rebellious and the rebelled-against would have different designations for the self-same causes.

In answer to the specific question about Russia and sympathetic militants in the Crimea, Yes, that is a plausible classification. Sovereign nations absolutely have the right and responsibility to see through foreign subversion, which is what manifestly what Putin's disavowal of them is. Framing them as terrorists does seem, if backed by the interested party, to force either a confession or an abandonment of purpose on Russia's part.

As to why NATO didn't get involved, it's good practice as taught by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson not to get involved in other people's wars.


Well, under that definition the ANC would be designated as terrorists whereas they are recognised internationally as freedom-fighters.

The term terrorist has become a hold-all term for just about anything a state does not like. As such, it’s a term, in my view, that has lost all value.

  • 2
    Embarrassing as this is for me, a US citizen, they WERE officially designated as terrorists by the USA between 1988 and 2008. I agree about the actual information one can get from just the label being attached. Jul 9, 2019 at 21:15

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