Vladimir Putin’s government is guilty of many crimes, ranging from bombing civilians in Syria to meddling in U.S. elections to assassinating dissidents in the United Kingdom and other countries. Does all this make it a supporter of terrorism? As opinion toward Moscow seems to become more hostile ever day—even President Trump briefly tweeted against Putin for backing “animal Assad” before backing down—perhaps inevitably the question of whether to use the “T-word” regarding Moscow has come up. Sen. Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointed to the U.K.’s finding that Russia was behind the attempted assassination of dissident Sergei Skripal to raise the question of whether Russia should be on the State Department’s official list of sponsors of terror.
Russia is indeed a sponsor of terrorism. But designating it as such would be counterproductive, and a closer look at the question shows the limits of designation as a tool of U.S. foreign policy.
The criteria for being on the list is rather vague: According to the State Department, if a state “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” it should be on it. Looking at examples from leading sponsors like Iran, forms of support include a haven, weapons, money, training, and other things that make a terrorist more formidable and harder to defeat. States designated as sponsors face restrictions on access to U.S. foreign aid, defense sales, and certain dual-use items, among other punishments. Sometimes designation is part and parcel of a broader campaign to isolate a state. Iran, Syria, and Sudan have been on the list for years, and North Korea was put back on the list in 2017, primarily as a way of showing U.S. disapproval of Pyongyang rather than because of a change in its support for terrorism. Russia works with Iran and is one of the Syrian regime’s few backers.
The case for adding Russia is surprisingly straightforward. Russia has killed dissidents in multiple countries—a form of international terrorism in that it involves violent activity outside Russia, a political motive, and a broader goal of intimidating other dissidents. The United States often called Iran’s assassination of its dissidents abroad terrorism. Although the perpetrators may be state agents rather than a terrorist group, the United States has long considered “clandestine agents of a state” in its definition of terrorism.
Some people might consider such assassinations a form of violent domestic politics that simply goes outside a country’s borders—chilling and worth condemning, but not a danger to other countries and different from our mental image of terrorism. However, Russia also supports violent groups on the ground that use terrorism. In Syria, Russian military forces have worked closely with the Lebanese Hezbollah, which the United States has long described as one of the world’s leading terrorist groups, to fight the enemies of the Assad regime. In Ukraine, Russia has backed anti-regime separatist militias with money, training, weapons, and direct military support, and some of these groups have used violence against civilians—notably the downing in 2014 of a Malaysian commercial flight that killed all 298 people aboard. The commander of U.S. forces said in March that Russia is arming the Taliban in Afghanistan, and U.S. soldiers are dying as a result.
Just as Trump added North Korea to the list, so too it is tempting to show U.S. disapproval of Russia’s many hostile actions by calling it a terrorist. Russia’s bombing of civilians in Syria, for example, deserves even more condemnation than it has received. Indeed, part of the purpose of the list is to “name and shame” bad actors, with the negative attention and penalties convincing them to mend their ways.
Yet for now at least, adding Russia to the list would be a mistake. Although a case could be made for being consistent, the United States is never consistent when it comes to state sponsorship—excluding known sponsors and including nauseating regimes that nevertheless do little terrorism. Sudan remains on the list despite being noted as a counterterrorism “partner” for the United States, largely because of Khartoum’s atrocious human rights record. Conversely, Pakistan, which has long supported an array of nasty groups, never was added to the list.
Even if the United States sought to be consistent, a deeper problem is definitional. Although various Russian actions can be considered “terrorism,” most don’t neatly fit the category. In Syria, Russia is backing a murderous regime that slaughters its own civilians, even to the point of using chemical weapons against them. But such support, while abhorrent, is not really terrorism. Even for Moscow’s actions that involve nonstate groups or clandestine violence, terms like “subversion,” “influence campaigns,” and “revolutionary war” fit better.
Hezbollah, by contrast, is a terrorist group. But in Syria, it is operating more likely a state paramilitary force, conducting urban counterinsurgency in cooperation with Iran, while even in Lebanon itself it is part of the government and an important social and political actor. Russian support for Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Ukrainian groups are much more about their capabilities as fighters in a civil war than about international terrorism. Not surprisingly, the counterterrorism toolkit is not terribly helpful. Influencing a civil war usually requires the threat or use of military force, training and support programs for militant groups, or significant financial support for a state.
Nor are the punishments associated with state sponsorship likely to work with Moscow. In the past, for a weak state like Libya, outside pressure in the form of economic sanctions, travel bans, and other means might sway its decision making, moving it away from terrorism. For Russia, the United States—let alone U.S. allies—are not likely to put significant economic pressure on Russia simply because Russia can bite back, in contrast to weaker powers like Sudan or even mid-level ones like Iran. So a U.S. listing by itself—unless it came with a suite of sanctions and other pressure—would escalate tension without adding any real pressure. Russia might increase support to anti-U.S. regimes and groups, use its supply of gas to disrupt the economies of pro-U.S. neighbors, and otherwise make a bad situation worse.
Making this worse, it’s hard to get off the list. Usually states are removed when there is a regime change (as in Iraq, when Saddam fell) or a dramatic turnaround in regime policy toward the United States, and even that usually takes years—getting off the list becomes about being America’s friend, not about supporting terrorism. In addition, the list has no room for improvement short of perfection, so states that dramatically cut their support but retain some residual ties do not benefit. Because the list is not flexible, it becomes a hindrance to U.S. diplomacy. This is part of why Pakistan never made the list: The United States needs Pakistani help in fighting terrorism and as a logistics hub for the war in Afghanistan. So even as Trump has called out Pakistan for its support for terrorism, it has not been added to the list. Complicating the bilateral relationship is particularly dangerous troubling with a major power like Russia, which has interests and influence in many parts of the world critical to the United States—Libya and Sudan can be shunned, Russia cannot.
The U.S. should be more confrontational toward Russia. This might include cyber measures, more economic pressure such as what U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley proposed and then Trump walked back, or increasing support for groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria, Russia’s ally. At the very least, the United States should strengthen ties to states like Ukraine and the Baltics that Russia is threatening. But adding Russia to the state sponsor list, however, offers little and risks unnecessarily complicating an already difficult policy challenge.