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CNN mentions that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a request to US President Joe Biden to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a request to US President Joe Biden in one of their recent phone conversations to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, according to a person familiar with the matter.

US officials have previously declined to rule out adding Russia to the list of state sponsors of terror, which right now includes North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Iran.

This article mentions what designating a state sponsor of terrorism might imply:

Designating a country as a state sponsor of terrorism would hurt the target country’s financial system, potentially:

  • freezing of the country’s assets in the United States, including real estate;
  • requiring the U.S. to veto efforts of that country to secure World Bank or International Monetary Fund loans;
  • prohibiting a wide variety of dual-use exports;
  • requiring the U.S. to take economic action against countries that continue to do business with the targeted country.

The same article mentions that at least one terrorist group (as designated by the US) is being helped by Russia:

Russia provides sanctuary to a U.S.-designated terrorist group, the Russian Imperial Movement

Except for the last point which could involve European countries that are kind of forced to do business with Russia (i.e. buy natural gas and oil), all the others seem to be quite close to already imposed sanctions: money freezing, very unlikely for Russia to receive a loan from the World Bank or IMF (I guess), US banned oil imports from Russia and revoked Russia’s trade status.

Considering these, what keeps the US from designating Russia a state sponsor of terrorism?

Note: this question is very close to what I am asking, but the context has dramatically changed since 2014 (full-scale invasion, huge sanctions already in place for Russia).

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    Might it have something to do with the fact that war and terrorism are two distinct things, even if both are bad? The US can apply any or all of those measures at will anyway, with or without any designation.
    – HK-51
    Apr 15 at 20:17
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    @ZOMVID-21 War targeting civilians could be classified as terrorism as that tends to be the goal when targeting them.
    – Joe W
    Apr 15 at 20:46
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    Probably because objectively they aren't? Or because the US risks looking like a hypocrite the next time they decide to invade someone?
    – Valorum
    Apr 18 at 15:56

5 Answers 5

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The designation of state sponsors of terrorism has little to do with terrorism and is mostly a political tool used by the US to justify economic sanctions. That's why countries like North Korea (dubious sponsors of terrorism) are on it and Saudi Arabia (equally dubious sponsors of terrorism) are not.

As for the reasons not to do so, as mentioned, it requires retaliation against trading partners for the target country, making it complicated to use on major global trading countries that provide a large amount for energy and food for many countries in the world, including close allies.

Furthermore, the justification is clearly not sufficient. According to what I believe to be an independent organization, the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism

While the provision of bomb-making expertise and other skills may threaten to destabilize Western countries, it is important to recognize that RIM is not a Russian state proxy. As Michael Carpenter put it, RIM has “an adversarial symbiosis” with the Russian government, which provides the group with “a great deal of latitude to interact with neo-Nazi and far-right extremist groups in the West—but only as long as they don’t cause too much trouble in Russia.”

And simply allowing such organizations to exist in your country is a necessary but not sufficient reason as the USA would be compelled to designate countries such as Germany, Bulgaria, and Austria (and likely Ukraine) for similar Neo-Nazi organizations such as the National Democratic Party of Germany.

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    Good answer, but the last paragraph is a bit misleading. Countries like Germany allow some right-wing organizations to exist basically because of free-speech laws. The US is even more liberal in that respect: Organizations like the American Nazi Party or the National Socialist Movement would be illegal in Germany, but are legal in the US. Maybe that's why the existence of such parties isn't sufficient for a country to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism. :-) Apr 18 at 0:57
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    @jcsahnwaldtReinstateMonica The last paragraph was making the point of how ridiculous the argument was. Unless you're a totalitarian nightmare state you can't really clamp down on these things simply existing, which even Russia doesn't do.
    – uberhaxed
    Apr 18 at 2:22
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The US might pretend that the designation is based on facts and (international) legal definitions, but it is not. It would be much more honest to call it the Countries Really Disliked by America List, not the State Sponsors of Terrorism List.

  1. It is part of the domestic negotiation process between the administration and the houses of Congress. In the current hyperpartisan climate, the US often finds itself deadlocked, and putting hard-won compromises into the form of law helps to keep the compromise in place.
    Under international law, the US could pass any or all consequences of a State Sponsor of Terrorism designation as individual decisions, but that would make each individual sanction part of the usual pork barrel process. What does it do to farmers in Iowa or consumers in California? Is there a Senator who is willing to filibuster unless his pet project goes into next years' budget?
  2. It is part of the diplomatic signaling process which communicates the current priorities of the US.

The domestic legal framework would start an international avalanche. The answer by Timur Shtatland mentioned German gas customers. While Germany is the largest European buyer by volume, several other Eastern European countries are even more dependent when it comes to percentages. Germany might have to shut the chemical and steel industry, other countries might see consumers sitting in dark and cold flats. Would that shatter the (surprising?) unity of NATO and the EU?

And even more importantly, it would force countries like China and India to pick sides. Right now China is going along with some measures, if they were forced to decide all or nothing they might go with nothing instead.

And finally, there is the question if the Ukraine conflict can end short of a Russian regime change and full reparations. If Russia was to retreat to the 2021 lines of control, would Ukraine be willing to accept that? And if Ukraine does, would the US domestic political process let Russia from that list at just the right time? That's what is so difficult about the genocide label, too. Once it is said, negotiations become more difficult.

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Because it's not an accurate designation. While Russia, at the moment, is a terrorist state. A terrorist state is not the same as a state-sponsor of terrorism.

A state sponsor of terrorism is a state sponsoring terrorist non-state groups abroad. The purpose of the designation is largely to enable stifling states from using regular banking operations, or other civilian infrastructure (such postal service), to facilitate terrorist groups. While it does carry a stigma with it, the stigma is largely symbolic.

If Russia were to start sponsoring, or arming, terrorist groups abroad (non-state militant groups attempting to use violence to influence political outcomes within countries which have genuine political process), then the designation would become appropriate.

A strong argument can be made that violent militant groups were sponsored by Russia, to undermine the legitimate Ukrainian government in Donbass. However, the fact that Russia has initiated a war of aggression against Ukraine simply subsumes the lesser fact that Russia has sponsored the terrorist groups in control of DPR and LHS. And given that it has become clear that Russia's intentions include genocide, the amount of redress necessary against Russia far exceeds any redress available against any state sponsor of terrorism.

However, if Russia were to start sponsoring terrorist groups outside of Ukraine, then the designation would still be available to curtail those activities.

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This point, as your question also implies, is the tricky part:

requiring the U.S. to take economic action against countries that continue to do business with the targeted country.

Given that, the US would be required to take economic action against Germany, among other European nations. But the US would much rather prefer that Germany works incrementally towards weaning itself off of Russian gas imports. After all, Germany remains an important ally of the United States. Economic actions against it would be unproductive for the US.

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The purpose of having such lists is to send other countries the message "You do not want to annoy us enough to earn a place on this list, because if you do we will be devoted to taking certain actions against you without regard for whether those actions would otherwise be in our interest." While the US would not be prohibited from putting a country on the list but then failing to follow through on actions that would be against the US interest, doing so would undermine the credibility of the original message.

The US should thus only put a country on the list if the associated actions would be, at worst, tolerably inconsistent with US interests.

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