President Joe Biden has made a final decision to not designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, the White House said Tuesday, saying that such a move could backfire and have unintended consequences for U.S. support of Ukraine amid Russia's invasion.
Biden's one-word response — "no," he said, when reporters asked him on Monday, "should Russia be designated a state sponsor of terrorism?" — ends months of serious, fervent discussions on Capitol Hill and in foreign capitals over whether to add Russia to the short, grim list that currently includes Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Nations earn this label when the U.S. secretary of state deems that a foreign government is "repeatedly providing support for acts of international terrorism." The designation effectively renders the target a pariah, by imposing restrictions on U.S. assistance; a ban on defense exports and sales; controls over items that can be used for both military and non-military purposes, and a raft of other restrictions.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre elaborated on the president's thought process.
"This designation could have unintended consequences to Ukraine, and the world," she said. "For example, according to humanitarian experts and NGOs we have spoken to, it could seriously affect the ability to deliver assistance in areas of Ukraine.
“Another one is it could drive critical humanitarian and commercial actors away from facilitating food exports to help mitigate the global food crisis and jeopardize the Black Sea ports deal that has already led to over a million tons of Ukrainian food exports reaching the world, including those in Horn of Africa.
“It will also undercut unprecedented multilateral conditions that have been so effective in holding [Russian President Vladimir] Putin accountable and could also undermine our ability to support Ukraine at the negotiating table,” she said. “So, again, we do not think this is the most effective way to go, or the strongest path forward."
Key among the proponents is Ukraine's president, who renewed his appeal this week as inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed alarm over fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces at Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
In a report released Tuesday, agency chief Rafael Grossi warned that "any further escalation affecting the six-reactor plant could lead to a severe nuclear accident with potentially grave radiological consequences for human health and the environment in Ukraine and elsewhere."
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used his nightly video address on Monday to hammer that point home.
"Shelling the territory of the ZNPP means that the terrorist state does not care what the IAEA says, it does not care what the international community decides," he said. "Russia is interested only in keeping the situation the worst for the longest time possible. This can be corrected only by strengthening sanctions, only by officially recognizing Russia as a terrorist state — at all levels."
And last month, the Baltic state of Latvia — formerly a member of the Soviet Union – levied the designation on Russia, with lawmakers voting overwhelmingly in favor of the move and urging other nations to follow suit.
Closer to home, the strongest charge has come from Capitol Hill, where a bipartisan group of senators has been urging the administration to make the call, after passing a resolution in July.
In the resolution, the senators argue that Russia promotes acts of international terrorism against political opponents and nation states, citing Russia's aggression in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria and remote corners of the world, under the aegis of the shadowy, Kremlin-backed mercenaries known as the Wagner Group.
"To the Biden administration: You have the complete unanimous support of the United States Senate to label Russia a state sponsor of terrorism," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said. "Do it."
Such agreement, Graham added, is rare in this increasingly divided political landscape, saying, "I didn't think there was an issue under the sun that could get 100 Senate votes, but we found it: Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism."
The resolution's co-sponsor, Democrat Richard Blumenthal, defended the argument on moral grounds.
"The designation of state sponsorship of terrorism puts Russia in a very small club — it consists of nations like Syria, Iran and Cuba that are outside the bounds of civilized countries," he said. "They are pariahs. And that is exactly the designation that Russia deserves for what it has done in Ukraine as well as in other countries."
And, over the weekend, White House officials confirmed that Moscow is buying rockets and artillery shells from North Korea — a longtime member of the list — for use in Ukraine.
"We expect Russia could try to purchase additional North Korean military equipment going forward," an administration official told reporters.
The Kremlin opposes the designation, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling Russian television on Tuesday that "the very formulation of the issue is monstrous."
"And, of course, it is good that the U.S. president responded in this way," he said.
While Peskov said the Kremlin welcomed Biden's firm “no,” he added that Moscow did not see that as a move to warm relations.
"It can hardly be a reason for such assessments," he said.
U.S. officials point out that Russia is already sweating under the weight of massive U.S. sanctions.
"The costs that have been imposed on Russia by us and by other countries are absolutely in line with the consequences that would follow from designation as a state sponsor of terrorism," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
And some analysts argue that Russia is low in the rankings when it comes to earning this dubious distinction.
"By the current standard, numerous countries could be placed on the state-sponsor-of- terror list, such as Myanmar/ Burma, China, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, just to name a few," wrote Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.
"Several U.S. allies deserve to be on such a list, too: United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Turkey, and Egypt. So does Saudi Arabia, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed "Slice 'n Dice" bin Salman, notable for murdering and dismembering his critics. The kingdom is more repressive domestically and has killed more people internationally than even Russia."
To summarize, he said: "The Putin regime is evil, but it is not a sponsor of terrorism."
Team It's Complicated
Just as the arguments on each side are fervent, so are the reasons that analysts — and the White House — say this issue is not black-and-white.
For one, said Delaney Simon, a researcher at the International Crisis Group, the U.S. and Russia engage across a number of platforms, including the United Nations Security Council, where both nations hold permanent seats.
"None of the other states that are designated state sponsors of terror have the same sort of role in the international system," she told VOA. "That would make any kind of multilateral diplomacy really, really complicated. And you've seen from some Russian statements that President Putin is going to think of this, definitely, as an escalation and cause for a rupture in relations."
She added that such a designation would end Russia's sovereign immunity from lawsuits from Americans claiming to be affected by Russian actions. Those cases could drag on for years and — as in the case of Sudan, a former member of the list — significantly delay a nation's removal from the list.
She also pointed out another element: to reverse the designation, something bigger and more important has to change.
"There's sort of a checklist of things that have to happen legally before the designation can be rescinded," she said. "One of the things that needs to happen is that the state has to undergo a fundamental change in leadership and policy. It's hard to see, well, a leadership change. Which, by the way, is something that the Biden administration has resisted calling for."
Finally, she said, if the goal is to end the six-month invasion of Ukraine, this may not help.
"I think once you look deeply at the policy implications of this issue, it's pretty clear that the designation wouldn't help Ukraine," she said. ussr
And so, for now, it's a no.