Despite the imposition of unprecedented sanctions against Russia by the Trump administration and Congress over the past year, President Vladimir Putin only seems more intent on causing grievous harm to international peace and stability.
Alongside increased financial sanctions against Mr. Putin and his cronies, there is another arrow in the American quiver that would add diplomatic pressure against Russia: The State Department should consider adding the country to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, alongside its close allies Iran and Syria.
The moral case for such a designation is sound. Russia has invaded its neighbors Georgia and Ukraine, it supports the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad and our enemies in Afghanistan, and it is engaged in active information warfare against Western democracies, including meddling in the 2016 United States elections.
This week, the Organization for Prevention of Chemical Weapons announced that the Kremlin had crossed yet another previously unimaginable line, when it confirmed findings by the British government that a Russian military-grade nerve agent, which British authorities identified as Novichok, was used to poison a former Russian intelligence agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. The attack also resulted in the hospitalization of British law enforcement officials who responded to the scene, as well as bystanders.
Russia has denied the charges, but the evidence is overwhelming. So is the attack’s significance: Russia is now officially responsible for a chemical weapons attack against a NATO member state on its own soil — a brazen violation of sovereignty of our closest ally. It requires a serious American response.
This startling confirmation comes on the heels of horrendous chemical weapons attacks by Mr. Assad against his own people in Syria. He is in power only because the Kremlin provides him with extensive diplomatic, military and economic support. The use of chemical weapons against civilians is illegal under international law, particularly the Chemical Weapons Convention. In fact, Syria’s illicit chemical program is part of the reason the United States continues to designate Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism.
There is also evidence that Russia is playing both sides of the conflict in Syria — defending the murderous Assad regime, but also fueling the radical insurgency against it. Reporting by Ukrainian news outlets has shown that Russia has provided material support to the Islamic State, including assistance in recruitment. According to these reports, the Islamic State now counts thousands of Russian-speaking jihadis among its forces.
We also know that Russia is ramping up its support for anti-American insurgents in Afghanistan. On Feb. 9, 2017, Gen. John Nicholson, the American commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Russia has “begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban” as a means “to undermine the United States and NATO.”
Moreover, Russia’s illegal and immoral war against Ukraine shows no signs of ending. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent support for Russian-controlled proxies in the Donbas region, the international community has failed to adequately respond to continued Russian aggression — and there has been a devastating price to pay. More than 10,000 Ukrainians have died in the war and more than 1.7 million have been displaced. On July 17, 2014, Russian proxies shot down a civilian airliner, killing all 298 onboard — including an American.
This is why I plan to introduce legislation that would require the State Department to determine within 90 days whether the Russian Federation meets the criteria to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. If the answer is yes, Russia would face restrictions on American foreign assistance, a ban on American defense exports and sales, limits on American sales of certain items that have both civilian and military uses, and other financial and other restrictions. Many of these penalties are already required under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, and the Trump administration is contemplating others.
Some will argue that applying such a toxic label to a major global power, one with a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, will not get it to back down, and might even further damage American-Russia ties, already at an all-time low. Those are important policy questions, which is why my legislation leaves a final determination to the professionals at the State Department.
However, it is clear that the blame for today’s distrust and tensions between Moscow and Washington lies entirely with the Kremlin and its atrocious behavior. We must take every diplomatic step necessary to protect our allies and our democracy, and to deter a revanchist Russia that is intent on rewriting history and threatening our way of life.
Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.