Why do so many people who support Ukraine oppose designating Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST)?

It would seem clear that Russia is sponsoring terrorism, wouldn’t it? Russian soldiers raped, tortured, and murdered their way through Irpin and Bucha. Almost everyday, headlines report mass casualties as Russian missiles rain down on shopping malls, hospitals, and apartment buildings. Ukraine purports that just a few days ago, Russia intentionally bombed a camp of Ukrainian POWs.

In his nightly address on July 30, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the “formal legal recognition of Russia as a terrorist state, in particular, recognition by the United States Department of State, is needed… an effective defense of the free world.”

In the same chorus are countless Ukrainian Members of Parliament, global leaders and the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi – all of whom are calling for Russia to be designated an SST.

But why do President Joe Biden, Sec. of State Antony Blinken, and so many others oppose calling Russia what most people believe it is – a sponsor of terrorism?

Ingrid Brunk Wuerth, a Vanderbilt University International Law Professor and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of International Law, agrees that Russia is committing unspeakable crimes in Ukraine. However, adding Russia to the list of SST “would be negative for Ukraine and for U.S. interests. They could even help Russia,” she elaborated earlier this week in the Washington Post.

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Wuerth continued that, in the case of Russia, the SST designation would have two primary effects. One of these is that the SST would heap largely redundant sanctions on Russia. Given that Russia is already the most sanctioned country in history, it is unlikely that these will have a direct effect in changing anything; however, the unknown impact of secondary sanctions is worthy of consideration.


Wuerth says that “foreign states are entitled to immunity before federal and state courts in the United States, but there is an exception for countries designated as SST.” This would mean that “those who have been hurt by Russia would be able to sue in an American courts and receive financial compensation for the losses that they have suffered due to Putin’s terrorism – financial compensation that would come from frozen Russian central bank assets.”

There is, however, a caveat: The SST specifically allows “only a very limited class of plaintiffs who may sue — specifically, U.S. nationals, service members and government employees. Successful plaintiffs could then execute their judgments against frozen Russian assets,” says Wuerth, continuing that ultimately this would “deplete frozen Russian assets that could otherwise provide important leverage in efforts to negotiate a peace deal — one that could provide compensation to many groups of injured people.”

Once Americans begin to allow their own citizens to deduct frozen Russian monies via awards in lawsuits, it is quite likely that other countries will follow suit so that their citizens can also reap the benefits of suing Russia, thus further depleting the frozen assets that some, Ukraine included, are seeking to have turned over to pay for Ukraine’s defense and eventual reconstruction.


In an interview with the Kyiv Post, Wuerth said she believes that the ultimate result of this will be the “significant depletion of the frozen assets that might be available to Ukrainians who have been harmed.”

Another consideration likely to be crossing Blinken’s mind is that the designation would “end diplomatic relations” between the US and Russia, according to the Spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week.

A senior advisor for the International Crisis Group, Brian Finucane, who has recently been engaged in the US State Department’s counterrorism and military work, told the New York Times that for “diplomacy, it’s not practical to designate a state with which the U.S. has a multifaceted relationship.”

If the US and Russia were to end diplomatic relations, it means more than just shuttering the US Embassy in Moscow. 

The American Embassy engages in not just diplomatic affairs, but also has people engaged in the service of American intelligence. It could be argued that ending diplomatic relations, which would thereby remove official diplomatic cover for US intelligence operators in Moscow, right now, does not help Ukraine. Rather, it is precisely now that Ukraine needs more US intelligence, not less.


It is uncertain how the United States, who vis a vis international development banks, are owed massive amounts of loan repayments for monies given to Russia over the past thirty years, would be able to get that back from the “state sponsor of terrorism.” Would SST designation cancel out Russia’s debts to the US?

Food exports from Russia have not been sanctioned by the West. Wuerth agrees with reports that the reasoning is simple: Sanctions are to punish Russia, not starve nations that have no other recourse from where to buy food for its citizens. A hungry country can easily become a politically volatile nation, which could produce dramatic unintended consequences across the Arab world, Africa, and Asia, that could severely damage US and European interests. A disaster in another country could also divert attention and the amount of donors’ funds available for Ukraine.

Wuerth continues that “those who call for SST designation have not explained the effect that the designation would have on other countries and how it might erode support for US and European interests.”

Why would some oppose adding Russia to the State Sponsors of Terrorism list?

Wuerth makes clear that she thinks that “the United States should impose more sanctions on Russia, but they should be tailored for Russia, to do the maximum harm to the Russian war effort.” However, the “SST designation is a headline-grabbing solution that sounds good, but it would be far better to identify the specific sanctions that would be most effective and impose those immediately.”


It seems those who oppose adding Russia to the SST are looking past “hashtag politics”, and perhaps trying to find the best solutions to help Ukraine.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post. 

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