Thus far in the 21st century, any number of terrorist organizations have disgraced the Earth with their unspeakable acts of savagery, including al Qaeda, ISIS and al-Shabaab. Terrorists are usually diffuse groups that are not controlled by an organized government. When a country sponsors repeated acts of international terrorism, it can earn U.S. designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, the Russian Federation is the leading terrorist nation of the 21st century and should be officially designated as such.
Putin’s terrorist path began with the brutal subjugation of Chechnya shortly after he assumed power in 1999. He unleashed massive firepower upon civilians for the purpose of terrorizing the population. The objective was to kill so many civilians that Chechen forces would have no alternative but to capitulate. It worked. He later succeeded with the same scorched-earth tactics in Syria as a favor to the Syrian government, which the U.S. has labelled a state sponsor of terrorism. Putin has visited practically every outrage in the war crimes playbook on the Ukrainians in his push to seize their sovereign nation.
The world is familiar with the continual targeting of civilians by Russian forces, including the deliberate attack on the Mariupol theater that killed about 600 people, the July 1 airstrike on a residential area near Odesa that killed at least 21 and a mall attack days earlier in which 19 died. This butchery has been a daily occurrence since the beginning of the Russian onslaught, and it appears to be intensifying. Russia fired twice as many missiles in the second half of June as in the first half.
Russian ground forces routinely engage in criminal activity in occupied areas — rape, theft, murder, torture and the like. When the small city of Bucha was liberated by Ukrainian forces, they found 280 bodies buried in mass graves. Similar atrocities have occurred in other occupied areas. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the Russians have “interrogated, detained and forcibly deported” up to 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children into Russian territory. Putin’s evil words and horrendous misdeeds provide substantial weight to Ukraine’s claims of genocide.
Russia’s “widespread use of weapons that kill, maim and destroy indiscriminately” violates international norms. As a former artillery officer in Vietnam, I’m familiar with cluster munitions, a weapon widely used by Russian forces. These consist of an artillery, missile or bomb canister that bursts in the air, spreading many little bomblets over a wide area. They kill indiscriminately and should never be used in civilian areas. Many of the bomblets do not detonate and can lay on the ground long into the future, waiting to be picked up by a curious child. Because of that, I refused to use them in the Vietnam War.
Russian forces use six types of cluster munitions in Ukraine, both to spread terror and to indiscriminately kill civilians. Most recently, they have used them, along with incendiary devices, to frighten Ukrainian farmers and destroy their grain crops, sabotaging Ukraine’s domestic and export food supplies.
The U.S. is not currently using cluster munitions but should ban their use by our military and call upon Russia to do likewise. To set an example, we should join the Convention on Cluster Munitions. That would give us standing to exert leverage against Russia.
The Biden administration has declared that Russian forces committed war crimes in Ukraine but seems reluctant to designate the Russian Federation under Putin as a state sponsor of terrorism. However, this issue is not confined just to his country’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine. There is Russia’s vicious subjugation of Chechnya, its terrorist acts against Georgia and its scorched-earth hostilities in Syria.
Furthermore, Putin’s war against Ukraine is also a stealth war against NATO nations. A principal reason for his terrorist tactics against Ukraine’s civilians is to drive millions into neighboring NATO nations to strain their economies and weaken their resolve to stand against him. And we should not forget the numerous times Putin and his cronies have threatened Ukraine and NATO nations with nuclear weapons. Nor that Putin often kills his enemies and rivals, both at home and abroad. Putin may have orchestrated the deaths of at least eight foes on foreign soil. The reach of his terrorist activity extends well beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.
A bipartisan group in Congress has been urging the administration to designate the Russian Federation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Resolutions to that effect are currently pending in both Houses. Four countries – Syria, Iran, North Korea and Cuba – currently have that unenviable distinction. All of them are treasured soulmates of the Russian despot.
Russia’s qualifications are clearly comparable, at the very least, to those of these cutthroat regimes. A country should not be exempt from the designation merely because it has large oil reserves and an extensive nuclear arsenal.
The terrorist designation would further tighten economic restrictions on Russia, prohibit a broad range of dual-use exports and require the U.S. to take economic action against countries continuing to do business with Russia. More than anything, it would be a well-deserved recognition of the pariah status that Putin has earned for himself and his country. After all, he is the leading terrorist of the 21st century.
Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is a regular contributor to The Hill.