President Zelensky is right. Russia is a terrorist state. It has fully embraced terrorism as a national strategy. What is unfolding daily before the world’s eyes is hard to describe in any other terms. The recent, appalling report of mass-murder in Bucha and the murder of 52 civilians at the Kramatorsk train station are just the latest examples of a concerted campaign of deliberately targeting the civilian population in Ukraine. Russia conducts these attacks for one patently obvious purpose: to spread terror in order to demoralize the Ukrainian population and bring the nation to heel. Recognition of this fact needs to guide every aspect of the United States’ and NATO’s approach to the conflict in Ukraine and Russia going forward.
Throughout the Cold War, U.S. policy was anchored in the clear-eyed recognition that the Soviet leadership’s make-up and ambitions were antithetical to international peace and security and presented a direct threat to the United States and the liberal democratic order. The resolve, patience, and strategic vision that animated the free world’s unity against the Soviet threat should be a model for how we deal with Russia today. Vladimir Putin has laid bare the consequences of years of willful blindness to the true nature of his regime and his goals, and the people of Ukraine are the immediate victims.
The audacity of Putin’s illegality has generated a level of unity among Europe and the United States not seen for decades, and that is perhaps the only positive result of this mounting tragedy. It is essential, however, that this coalition of outrage not slip back towards the years of pretending Russia under Putin is anything other than what it has shown itself to be: a modern and in many ways even more aggravated version of the Soviet threat—a genuine terrorist state.
The label of “terrorist state” is frequently, if at times too casually, invoked in the rhetoric of foreign policy and national security. Like terrorism itself, which lacks a single controlling definition in international discourse, there is no “test” for what qualifies a state for such condemnation. Perhaps in some ways it is like the famous U.S. Supreme Court definition of pornography: you know it when you see it. If so, the world is “seeing” it right now. President Zelensky is right. Russia is a terrorist state.
A state, or nation, is really a manifestation of its leadership and policies. Indeed, one of the constitutive elements of statehood established in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States is that the state is able to enter into foreign relations with other states. How a state wields its power in the international realm is a genuine touchstone for assessing international legitimacy, not to mention respect for the international legal framework that has evolved to mitigate the risk of inter-state conflicts and the humanitarian suffering such conflicts produce. When state authorities—in this case Vladimir Putin and his servile state apparatus—leverage every element of state power to defy this international order and to inflict terror, the designation of terrorist state is both logical and appropriate.
However malleable the term “terrorism” may be as a political epithet, one thing is certain. When it comes to waging war, engaging in acts or threats of violence for the primary purpose of spreading terror among the civilian population is strictly prohibited by international law and violative of the most fundamental notions of humanity. Yet this is the modus operandi of Russia’s military operations.
But terrorizing the Ukrainian population by committing blatant war crimes of the most grave order is only one aspect of the terror the Russian government is inflicting. Under the control of a morally defective autocrat, it is conducting its terror campaign in multiple ways. The most immediate is the unprovoked and illegal aggression and accordant suffering inflicted on another sovereign state by first threatening, then launching its so-called “special military operation.” And, as noted above, how the Russian forces are executing this war is, in turn, aimed at terrorizing an entire population into submission. The evidence is compelling and growing that they are deliberately targeting civilians, civilian property, and other specially protected objects like hospitals; using indiscriminate weapons and tactics when attacking military targets; and executing an overall campaign that supports only one rational inference: a complete indifference to the most basic international laws regulating the conduct of hostilities. These systemic illicit wartime tactics also suggest a high-level objective of spreading terror among the civilian population. To suggest otherwise presumes a level of incompetence too gross to withstand even minimal scrutiny. The way Russia is prosecuting this illegal war presents layer after layer of blatant violations of the laws and customs of war.
Russia is also terrorizing its own population by imposing constraints on free speech, press, assembly, and protest that all violate the most basic obligations of international human rights law and the specific obligations of the European Convention on Human Rights. And of course, there is Putin’s effort to cow the world from interfering in his atrocities by overtly threatening nuclear annihilation—the ultimate act of terrorism.
None of this should come as a surprise. For decades, Putin has been embarked on a crusade, through subversion and coercion, to weaken his perceived adversaries, undermine the rules-based order, and reassert Russian suzerainty over the former republics of the Soviet Union and the vassal states of the Warsaw Pact. If we think this current terror campaign is an atypical act of desperation after Russian forces failed to achieve immediate success, just ask the people of Grozny.
There is a symbolic, pragmatic, and most crucially, strategic value in labeling Russia for what it has become under Putin: a terrorist state. As in the Cold War, this recognition must serve as the linchpin for U.S. policy moving forward. And the United States needs to continue to lead in this effort to avert the danger of backsliding into the pattern of willful blindness that sadly contributed to reaching this point of international tragedy. There should be no reward for Russia’s blatant illegality: only accountability. This will require unified and determined commitment to ensuring that Putin’s Russia will never again be permitted to terrorize the world; unity and commitment built on a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the evil he represents.
Putin has bared his soul for all to see, and it is dark. His invasion of Ukraine brings into full view his direct assault on international peace and security and the very foundations of the post-World War II international order. How the rest of the international community responds to this has consequences that will reverberate far beyond Ukraine.
Geoffrey S. Corn is the Gary A. Kuiper Distinguished Professor of National Security Law at South Texas College of Law Houston and a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel. He is also a member of the CERL Advisory Council.
Gary P. Corn is the Director of the Technology, Law & Security Program and Adjunct Professor of Cyber and National Security Law at American University Washington College of Law, and a retired U.S. Army Colonel.
The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent CERL’s official views.