WASHINGTON – Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner on Thursday reiterated a call from earlier in the week for the State Department to explore labeling Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
The legislation, which Gardner initially discussed in a Fox News interview, would direct the State Department to investigate Russian sponsorship of terrorism and report back to Congress within 90 days.
“I think it’s time to very concisely and clearly lay out the grievances the world has with Russia right now – in a frame not of ‘oh, it’s aggression’ – but as a bad actor doing evil things,” Gardner said during an interview with The Durango Herald on Thursday morning.
Gardner referred to a long list of actions taken by the Russians both in the last decade and in recent weeks. He pointed to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, which he called a “violation of international law,” and the recent poisonings and murders of dissidents in Russia and other European countries.
“It’s time we give serious consideration to stepping up toward Russia in a way that we have not done yet,” Gardner said. “Vladimir Putin clearly understands strength and he manipulates weakness. The United States, our partners and allies must show total strength against this Russian menace.”
The goal of potentially labeling Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, Gardner said, is to highlight the actions Russia has taken around the globe and to demonstrate to the world “that we don’t turn a blind eye to these egregious actions.”
“This gives us a battery of options, sanctions, other measures we can use to counter that behavior and deal with continuing efforts to undermine our democracy,” Gardner said.
According to the State Department, once a country is labeled a state sponsor of terror, four main categories of sanctions will be implemented. The United States restricts foreign assistance, bans defense exports and sales to the country, implements export controls of items that serve both a military and civilian purpose and enforces other financial restrictions.
Gardner sees North Korea’s addition to the list in 2017 as credible justification for potentially labeling Russia as such, and that is why he wants to direct the State Department to investigate Russian’s involvement in terrorism.
“One of the reasons they were named a state sponsor of terror was because they used a chemical agent to kill a North Korean citizen on foreign soil,” Gardner said.
Gardner was referring to the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with a chemical agent while he was traveling through a Malaysian airport in 2017.
Russia recently used a chemical agent in an attempt to assassinate a former clandestine operative in the United Kingdom, an action Gardner said provides good reason to investigate the state sponsor label because of its similarity to North Korean actions.
“(Both administrations) hesitated for a very long time on (naming) North Korea,” Gardner said. “I think even the process of this will be a healthy exercise in order to highlight Russian activities.”
The assessment ultimately has to come from the State Department. The path forward on the bill is uncertain. Even if passed by Congress, the bill would head to the desk of a president, who has been reluctant to sign and implement previous sanctions against the Russians, even though they had broad support among both Democrats and Republicans. The sanctions are a significant step down from the label of state sponsor of terrorism.
“He signed (the sanctions), but he didn’t want to,” Gardner said. “That’s why I think if we get significant support out of this, he would sign it.”
Gardner has not yet engaged with anyone in the administration about the legislation, which he said is still being written. He said in a Fox News interview Tuesday that the bill would direct the State Department to make a determination within 90 days.
The United States has sanctioned Russia for decades but turned up diplomatic and economic pressures after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. If the State Department officially labeled Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, it would be a significant step up from sanctions.
“It would put Russia in a category that it’s never been before,” Gardner said. “It would be a significant diplomatic black eye for Russia.”
The U.S. currently has 28 active sanction programs against various countries around the globe, according to the Treasury Department. The State Department labels only four as state sponsors of terrorism: Syria, North Korea, Iran and Sudan.
“That’s not exactly company you want to keep,” Gardner said.
Relations between the U.S. and Russia already are frayed over Russia’s election meddling and support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who also recently attacked his own citizens with chemical weapons. How Russia would respond to such a label is uncertain, but Gardner is unconcerned.
“If this means that Russia gets mad at us for their engagement in Ukraine and Georgia, so be it,” Gardner said.
The State Department could find that Russia is not a state sponsor of terror as a result of its investigation, but Gardner’s vision is clear.
“We need to be eyes open on this and clear,” Gardner said. “This is also a public naming and shaming of Russia in a way that simply hasn’t been done before.”
Andrew Eversden is an intern for The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.