Is Russia a State Sponsor of Terrorism?

Kyiv, May 29, 2014. A citizens’ petition on the United States White House website calls for the American government to include the Russian Federation as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” Currently, more than 100,000 people have signed the petition, which is above the threshold that mandates an official response from the Obama Administration. The petition claims that Russia’s support for armed separatism in Ukraine fits the necessary criteria to designate it a state sponsor of terrorism, and calls on the Obama Administration to follow American law accordingly.

The text of the petition reads as follows:

“In its unannounced war against Ukraine, Russia relies on covert operations which fall squarely within the definition of “international terrorism” under 18 U.S.C. § 2331. Specifically, armed operatives of Russia, acting under disguise, attempt to influence the policy of Ukrainian government by intimidation or coercion. They also try to affect the conduct of a government by assassinations and kidnapping, taking by force government buildings, police posts and military bases of Ukraine. This activity is being conducted on large scale and over prolonged time period, despite condemnation by the USA, G-7, NATO, EU and UN.”

At the present time, four countries are listed as state sponsors of terror by the State Department: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Any country designated by the U.S. State Department as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” is subject to a variety of sanctions and restrictions on the activities of American businesses there. Three laws – the Export Administration Act of 1979, the Arms Export Control Act, and the Foreign Assistance Act -regulate the U.S.’s relationship with these countries.  The United States bans the sale of weapons and military-related products to these states, and places restrictions on economic aid and any transactions that might aid their military capability or ability to support international terrorism.

According to the petition, Russia’s actions and support for separatists in Ukraine fits the definition of terrorism sponsorship. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines international terrorism as “violent acts or acts dangerous to human life” outside of the United States that intend “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” affect “the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” or “affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”

The actions of pro-Russian separatists in Donbas do indeed seem to fit the FBI and international definition of terrorism. Pro-Russian separatists have attacked and intimidated the pro-Ukrainian opposition in Donbas, brutally murdering a Horlivka town councilor, Volodymyr Rybak. Separatists have also attacked peaceful pro-Ukrainian rallies, and have begun a campaign of kidnappings and beatings of journalists, local activists, and others seen as potentially disloyal to the self-proclaimed pro-Russian regimes. Certainly such tactics are committed with the intent of affecting the Ukrainian government’s policies on its own sovereign territory, which perfectly fits the American government’s definition of terrorism.

Russia’s encouragement and support for the separatist groups are widely acknowledged by the United States and other foreign governments. Russian weapons, equipment, and citizens are operating on Ukrainian soil in Donbas, as is acknowledged by American ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. “There’s extensive evidence these groups are coming from across the Russian border,” he said, adding that this couldn’t “be happening without some kind of official, at least connivance” on the part of the Russian government. Following the Ukrainian military’s deadly confrontation with the separatists at Donetsk’s airport on May 26, several Russian citizens were admitted to local hospitals, a fact confirmed by Donetsk’s mayor, Oleksandr Lukyanchenko. Journalists from The New York Times and other credible news sources have also uncovered and widely reported on the presence of Chechen fighters among the separatists.

Although it remains unlikely that the United States will designate the Russian Federation as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” given Russia’s importance in international affairs and the need for a peaceful solution to the crisis, the petition draws attention to Russia’s role in supporting groups that fit international definitions of terrorism. According to the United States’ and the international community’s definition of terrorism, pro-Russian militias in Donbas can in fact be considered terrorist groups. Russia’s barely-concealed military and financial support for these operatives, by extension, means that the Russian government is a sponsor of international terrorism in Ukraine.  As the debate about a solution for Ukraine’s crisis moves forward, it should be at least acknowledged that the Russian Federation, a world power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is sponsoring international acts of terrorism outside of Russia’s borders.