Front Page

Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Can Russia be Designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism?

Written by: Andrea Castagna, Marco Melega, Anna Melenchuk

This article was written in collaboration with  the ReThink.CEE fellowship at the German Marhall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Making the Call

The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine called out the actions of Russian troops in an assessment shared with the Human Rights Council in September 2022. The commission stated that numerous war crimes had been committed since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022. They highlighted the deployment of explosive weaponry causing extensive harm in civilian-populated areas, the perpetration of acts of torture and mistreatment carried out during illegal detentions, and acts of sexual crimes and gender-based violence as evidence for their claims.

Pursuing legal action against violations of international law is a complicated undertaking. This article breaks down what it means to call out other states for their crimes, how this is undertaken in practice, and the impact of taking a stance.

What is in a Word?

The definition of terrorist offences used by the European Council includes acts that are committed with the purpose of “seriously intimidating a population” and “seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic, or social structures of a country.” Based on this definition, in November 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that declared “Russia to be a state sponsor of terrorism.” They further called on the European Union and its member states to establish an appropriate legal framework to designate states as sponsors of terrorism and apply this designation to Russia in light of the war crimes and acts of aggression committed in Ukraine.

A Look at Policies in the United States

A look across the Atlantic helps as a point of comparison: When the US State Department designates a state as a sponsor of terrorism the state in question faces significant legal and political consequences. Firstly, the state becomes exempt from sovereign immunity, which allows lawsuits by victims of terrorism against the state designated as a sponsor of terrorism. Secondly, sanctions may include the restriction of US foreign assistance, which limits financial aid to the designated country. Defense exports and sales of military-related goods also become banned. Additional import and export controls are often imposed with financial restrictions to significantly reduce the military capabilities of the state. Crucially, secondary sanctions are applied to any country that persists in engaging with the designated state, resulting in a de facto economic and political isolation of the government. The resulting impacts on the financial and technological capacities for warfare would be highly consequential. Despite civil society groups and members of Congress calling for the US government to name Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, they have not done so yet.

European Consensus

During the European Parliament Plenary in October 2022, Ylva Johansson, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, noted that the EU currently lacks a specific legal framework to designate a third country as a state sponsor of terrorism. According to current EU legislation, the monitoring of state entities’ involvement in terrorism falls outside the responsibilities of the EU’s Working Party on Restrictive Measures to Combat Terrorism (COMET), which advises the Council on listing individuals or groups as terrorists.  In comparison to the US, the inability to remove sovereign immunity from foreign states designated as state sponsors of terrorism poses a challenge to legal action. This is especially the case for the EU vis-à-vis Russian actions in Ukraine. State immunity is generally upheld by individual states, although its application can vary widely in national courts.

The international pressure on EU decision-makers to address Russia’s actions is steadily increasing. EU member states such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czechia, The Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia have already approved resolutions or political acts that designate Russia as a terrorist state. Furthermore, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has recently approved a resolution that contains paragraphs that “declare the current Russian regime as a terrorist one”.

A Different Challenge

EU policymakers have directed their attention toward the infamous Wagner Group, whose activities bear a remarkable resemblance to the EU’s comprehensive definition of a terrorist organization. Reports show that Wagner has been implicated in extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual assault, and various war crimes targeting local civilians. Their presence has been documented not only in Ukraine but in several African and Middle Eastern nations, including Syria, the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and Sudan. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the Wagner Group became infamous for employing violence, fear and control over civilian populations to gain political influence and economic benefit.

One Powerful Word

Lithuania and France took the lead among EU members in designating Wagner as a terrorist organization. In late 2022, a cross-party group of Members of Parliament urged the President of the European Council to follow suit in a letter that denounced the PMC’s “violations of international law”. More recently in May 2023, the French Parliament called on the EU to list Wagner as a terrorist group. The importance of such a declaration is layered. As a “terrorist group”, they by-and-large lose the ability to travel internationally, transfer funds, and engage in commercial activities with countries, institutions, and companies that recognize the designation. It should be of note that despite the dissolution of Wagner concerning its operations in Ukraine, the PMC so far continues its operations as usual in the aforementioned African states.

The Consequences

Designating the Wagner group as a terrorist organization may lead the way to recognizing the Russian Federation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The financial impacts of freezing the Wagner’s remaining assets would effectively limit their funding capacity for future operations around the world. Secondly, criminalizing the provision of any form of material support by third parties would significantly reduce the available support network for their activities, which are entwined with those of the Russian Federation, in particular the Ministry of Defense. Perhaps of lesser important given the existing flight and visa restrictions for Russians is that freedom of movement into the EU could also be severely restricted if travel restrictions on group members were imposed. Lastly, allowing citizens of Ukraine or African states to pursue legal action for damages caused by the acts of terrorism would provide recourse for those affected by their actions against personal or property interests.

In essence, the EU stands at a crucial moment in which it could trigger a set of tangible actions toward limiting the violations of international law described by The UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine.

If you would also like to write articles on insightful stories you care about, send us a brief email!