Blinken resists pressure to label Russia a terrorist state

WASHINGTON — The US Senate unanimously supports it. The same goes for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian Parliament.

But Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken isn’t so sure.

For weeks, pressure has been mounting on Mr. Blinken to formally declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, a tag currently reserved for North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Iran. But despite the emotional appeal, Mr. Blinken is resisting a move that could force him to sanction U.S. allies who do business with Russia and could stifle the last vestiges of diplomacy between Washington and Moscow.

Amid outrage over Russia’s brutal military campaign in Ukraine, the US Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved a non-binding resolution calling on Blinken to name Russia as a terror sponsor for his attacks in Ukraine, as well as in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria, which resulted in “in the deaths of countless innocent men, women and children.”

“To me, Putin is now sitting atop a state terror apparatus,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and co-sponsor of the resolution, told reporters after the vote. He said the sanctions that had already been imposed on Russia “have been effective, but we need to do more.”

This month, Mr. Graham and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, visited Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv and presented him with a framed copy of their resolution.

But Mr. Blinken responded noncommittally when asked about the issue on Thursday, echoing other State Department and White House officials. Any decision must be based on existing legal definitions, he said, while suggesting the point was moot because Russia was already under numerous sanctions.

“The costs that have been imposed on Russia by us and other countries are entirely consistent with the consequences that would flow from being designated as a state sponsor of terrorism,” Blinken told a news conference. . “So the practical effects of what we do are the same.”

Mr. Blinken’s hand can be forced, however. While the Senate resolution was just a call to action without legal force, a group of House Democrats on Thursday tabled a new measure that, if passed by Congress and signed into law, would end the department of state and would add Russia to the United States. list of sponsors of terrorism.

A State Department concluding that Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism — a label agency officials call the “nuclear option” — would lead to more sanctions on Russia’s struggling economy, including sanctions against countries that do business with Moscow. It would also remove traditional legal barriers that prevent individuals from suing foreign governments for damages, potentially including the families of American volunteers killed or injured fighting Russia in Ukraine.

And it could sever, once and for all, the Biden administration’s limited diplomatic ties with Moscow, analysts said, which Mr. Blinken said was important to keep intact.

As a reminder of this dynamic, Mr. Blinken spoke by telephone on Thursday with his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, and pressed him to accept a proposal to release two Americans, Brittney Griner and Paul N. Whelan, but he reported no breakthrough. It was their first conversation since Russia invaded Ukraine.

During the war, Mr Zelensky openly called for the designation of terrorism, citing last month “the urgent need to consecrate it legally”. The House is preparing to vote on a resolution similar to the Senate version, with strong support from Ms. Pelosi.

The disagreement between the Biden administration and Congress over the etiquette echoes debates at the start of the war in Ukraine, when the first evidence of atrocities emerged. When congressional leaders, including Ms. Pelosi, accused the Russian military of committing war crimes, Mr. Blinken was cautious, citing legal tests and the need for evidence and investigation. But on March 16, President Biden replaced that position by declaring Mr. Putin a “war criminal”.

Mr. Biden’s rhetorical statement infuriated the Kremlin, but it had no political implications. This would not be the case with an official terrorism designation.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss policy deliberations, expressed concern that such a move would limit the administration’s ability to exempt certain transactions with Russia from sanctions Western. The official did not specify the activities, but the United States has, for example, ensured that Russian food exports are not affected by trade sanctions.

The secretary of state has wide latitude to impose various designations on other countries or groups, according to legal experts. But the department prefers to use the designations only in specific circumstances.

According to the State Department, the terrorism designation entails restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, limits on certain exports of “dual-use” technology items that could have military applications, and a ban on exports and sales of defense.

Much of this is covered by existing sanctions. But the discovery could force the United States to go further, Mr Graham said on Wednesday, adding new restrictions on how third countries could interact with Russia without fear of US sanctions.

“That means doing business with Russia, with that designation, becomes extremely difficult,” Graham said.

Experts said the diplomatic cost of such a move could be significant and Mr Putin could expel all US diplomats from the country. So far, Moscow has allowed the US Embassy in Moscow to remain open and to certain diplomats, including Ambassador John J. Sullivan.

Even during the war in Ukraine, the United States wants to continue working with Russia on certain issues, including international talks with Iran on reinstating a 2015 nuclear deal to which Moscow was a party and whose President Donald J. Trump has retired.

“For diplomacy, it is impractical to single out a state with which the United States has a multifaceted relationship,” said Brian Finucane, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group who has recently worked on military and counterterrorism issues. at the State Department.

However, some proponents of the designation would not mind isolating Russia further.

“The state sponsorship of terrorism designation puts Russia in a very small club,” Blumenthal said Wednesday. “It consists of nations like Syria, Iran, Cuba, which are outside the borders of civilized countries. They are outcasts.

So far, US officials have used the label primarily in cases where a nation or its proxy has committed a narrowly targeted non-military act, such as the bombing of a civilian airliner.

“US officials want to make a clear distinction between terrorism and the type of conflict where the US military might engage in combat operations,” Finucane said.

In 2019, Trump officials debated a proposal to impose the “foreign terrorist organization” label on part of Iran’s military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Pentagon officials opposed the move, fearing setting a precedent that could invite other countries to impose a similar designation on the United States due to the actions of the US military.

President Trump has dismissed this objection. As part of negotiations to restore a nuclear deal, Iran demanded that the Biden administration remove the label, but Mr Biden refused.

Once announced, a terrorist designation is often seen by U.S. officials as politically risky to repeal, even in a new administration with different views. In one of his last acts in the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” a step the Biden administration has yet to reverse, despite skepticism. as to its justification. (Mr. Trump removed Sudan from the list of sponsors of terrorism as part of a 2020 deal to normalize relations with Israel.)

Mr. Trump also named North Korea as a sponsor of terrorism in 2017, even though President George W. Bush lifted the tag in 2008.

Daniel L. Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote at the time that the US approach to state sponsorship of terrorism “has many flaws” . Among them, he said, was the fact that some obvious candidates, including Pakistan — which Washington considers a partner but whose intelligence services have ties to the Taliban and anti-India terror groups — have somehow evaded the label.

charlie savage contributed report.

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