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Why now is the time for Russia to be declared a terrorist state

Ukraine flag - Russian flag (Credit: Delphotos / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

In a game of odd one out, choose between North Korea, Syria, Iran and Russia. All four are despotic regimes, committed to stamping out human rights and democracy. As the kindling of the Arab Spring was lit around the Mediterranean from 2011, Assad in Syria, backed by Putin, ruthlessly used chemical weapons on his own people.

Iran continues to be an anti-Western force of destabilisation in the Middle East, threatening to spark a wider conflict. Meanwhile its Shahed attack drones fly nightly from Russia to Ukraine, with their distinctive high-pitched flight noise, a daily reminder of the misery of war.

A smiling Putin recently visited North Korea, toasting a new partnership – one that exchanges nuclear secrets for more weapons as he runs desperately short of explosives to kill civilians in Ukraine.

Yet, the odd country out is Russia. North Korea, Syria, and Iran are recognised by the United States as state sponsors of terrorism, yet Russia is not.

Credit: Alamy
Building damaged in Ukraine (Credit: Alamy)

In the UK we do not have a mechanism for declaring a country a state sponsor of terrorism. However, in September 2023, the UK proscribed the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation. This Russian, state-controlled, mercenary organisation has committed barbaric acts in Ukraine, but also in at least six other African countries, including Mali, Libya, Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

Since the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, when Wagner fighters were assimilated into the command structure of the Russian military and rebranded as the African Corps, it now acts fully as the terrorist arm of the Russian state – a country that continues to commit terrorism against the citizens of Ukraine.

In a slightly perverse situation, we have now proscribed a terrorist group working directly for the president of a hostile country, but there is no mechanism for that country to be designated for what it is: a state sponsor of terrorism.

In a report published recently by the UK Friends of Ukraine, the evidence is damning. In Ukraine, there are at least 10,000 murdered civilians, 150,000 homes destroyed and 120,000 registered war crimes.

During a visit to Chernihiv Oblast in northern Ukraine, I spoke to Ukrainians who had emerged from a basement, several weeks after the full-scale invasion. The village they once called home was left looking like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Even the local farm had its livestock shot dead, for no other reason than the barbarity of the invasion. The only creature left alive was the local goat, which survived by chance, as he’d fallen into the local rubbish tip. 

That is why 13 MPs and five peers, representing all the major political parties, have signed a joint letter, led by Ukraine All-Party Parliamentary Group co-chair Alex Sobel MP, to Lord Cameron, calling on him to look again at mechanisms for designating Russia a terrorist state. 

The European Parliament passed a symbolic resolution in November 2022 and follows a grassroots campaign and petition launched by the UK Friends of Ukraine.  But we need more than symbolism. Declaring Russia a terrorist state should come alongside more concrete action to move from freezing Russian assets to seizing them. Since the full-scale invasion, the UK has frozen £18 bn of Russian assets. This much-needed funding would be equivalent to £650 donated by every household in the UK.

A Ten Minute Rule Bill by Chris Bryant last year provides an example of how sanctions could be extended so that frozen assets can support Ukraine. The New Lines Institute likewise published a framework for how money could be held in an escrow account and spent on reconstruction.

These ideas have merit, but as the two-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion is marked at the end of February, we cannot wait any longer. The UK needs to designate Russia as a terrorist state, make good on our commitments as a key ally, and unfreeze assets to the benefit of Ukraine. 

Alex Rennie, Leader of Havant borough council and founder of UK Friends of Ukraine

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