“The security situation throughout Ukraine continues to be violent and unpredictable due to ongoing military attacks by Russia,” the U.S. State Department warned on July 14. “Avoid large gatherings and organized events as they may serve as Russian military targets anywhere in Ukraine, including its western regions.” This was not the first time the American diplomatic mission in Kyiv warned civilians to avoid “gatherings and organized events,” but the atrocity that forced State to reissue this alert was horrific enough to take the admonition seriously.
Earlier that day, Russia fired three submarine-launched cruise missiles at targets in the Western Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, though it is unclear what the intended targets might have been. Those missiles fell on a populated shopping center, a dance studio, and a wedding venue, instantly killing 23 and wounding another 71 while burying scores more beneath the rubble. Some speculated that Russia’s intended target was a Ukrainian officer’s club, but the dubious military value of that target and the likelihood of collateral damage given the density of the city around it don’t do much to absolve Russia. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that collateral damage is deliberate and that terrorizing the Ukrainian public is the desired outcome.
If the United States has concluded that Moscow is deliberately targeting civilian “gatherings,” that should make academic any debate over whether to deem Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. And yet, the debate rages on.
According to Politico last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued an ultimatum to Secretary of State Antony Blinken: Either you label Russia a terror state, or we will. Resolutions that would brand Moscow a terrorist actor have been circulating in both federal legislative chambers since the spring, but Congress has not acted in deference to the Biden White House. Pelosi said the designation is “long overdue,” but the administration has been dragging its feet. The State Department insists the existing suite of sanctions against Russia is sufficient to isolate Moscow and reduce its capacity to project force in Ukraine. Additionally, the “secondary” sanctions a terrorism designation would trigger against nations and individuals with business ties to Russia could perversely weaken the existing sanctions regime.
“The sanctions we have in place and have taken are the same steps that would be entailed by the designation of a state sponsor of terrorism,” State Department Spokesman Ned Price insisted. But given that the State Department is in effect alleging that Moscow is prosecuting a campaign of terror, Congress may not accept this rationale much longer. Indeed, evidence of Russia’s wartime atrocities mounts by the day.
A Human Rights Watch report published this weekend alleged that Russian forces have engaged in a systematic campaign of torture. Detainees have been electrocuted, burned, and had their ribs and teeth broken. Reporting from occupied areas of Ukraine is replete with allegations of summary executions and forced abductions. Many thousands of Ukrainians have been “evacuated” to Russia where they are re-educated in “filtration camps.” Although Moscow and Kyiv reached a tentative deal to once again allow the export of grain through the country’s Black Sea ports, which would relieve some of the pressure this war has put on global food prices, a Russian cruise missile strike on the port city of Odessa’s shipping infrastructure this weekend calls into question Moscow’s commitment to humanitarianism.
The U.S. government does not deny that these atrocities are occurring. Indeed, officials warn that the worst is yet to come. Moscow intends to annex into the Russian Federation the territory it presently occupies in Ukraine, at which point it can proceed unmolested toward the goal of this war: breaking and eliminating the very idea of a Ukrainian identity.
Meanwhile, Russia proper has become intensely repressive and militaristic. Any expression of dissent against the war in Ukraine has been criminalized. Academics and journalists have been arrested. The number of “foreign agents” subject to punitive legal measures has exploded. Ominously, Jewish organizations can now count themselves among the many “foreign agents” Russia seems set on persecuting. “Multiple Jewish organizations in Russia have received threatening letters in recent weeks from the Russian Justice Ministry regarding their work,” the Jerusalem Post reported. The writing on the wall is legible from orbit.
The Biden administration has valid reasons for wanting to avoid the complications that would follow designating Russia a terrorist state, but Russia’s terroristic actions are rendering the White House’s resistance untenable. The administration’s hand may soon be forced. If so, it will be Russia, not Congress or the community of democratic nations, that forced it.