Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds binoculars while watching the military exercises Center-2019 at Donguz shooting range near Orenburg, Russia, on September 20, 2019. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russia’s massive troop buildup on Ukraine’s border has produced the worst tensions between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War. 

So what is to be done about Putin’s threat to Ukraine? Economic sanctions have become a reflexive U.S. response to nations perceived as bad actors, but their record is mixed at best. In the case of Russia, America has maintained economic sanctions against the Putin regime for several years, including the Magnitsky Act, which preceded the Kremlin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. While sanctions may inconvenience Putin’s inner circle, they have not stopped Russia’s widely condemned international activities, including its territorial aggrandizement at the expense of Ukraine, among other actions. Moscow also conducts massive cyberattacks against the United States. Hacking against Ukraine is so pervasive and serious (such as attacking its power grid in the depths of winter) that it bears comparison with an act of war. Its electronic assaults on Estonia have forced that country to completely change the way it operates online.

At this point, will sanctions work? Will further measures targeting Russia’s ruling clique make it harder for them to launder money in the Miami or London real estate markets? Will sanctions force Putin to amend a Russian foreign policy that routinely employs cybercrime, threats of invasion, and murder? 

As for broader economic sanctions, these inevitably involve penalizing Russia’s energy sector. Would Europeans be eager to join in that exercise, given their demonstrated lack of interest in impeding Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, now essentially finished but yet to be certified? 

There remains, however, one measure that has not yet been publicly discussed. It is the neutron bomb of international sanctions: the State Department’s designation of Russia as a state sponsor of international terrorism.

Currently, there are only four countries on that list, all of them second- or third-tier powers that would probably be international pariahs in any case: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. The behaviors of these smaller despotic regimes bear similarity to Russian behavior.

North Korea and Iran have conducted assassinations of dissidents on foreign territory in the same manner as Russia. North Korea was originally placed on the State Department list in 1988 for blowing up a South Korean airliner. This charge could apply to Russia for the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in 2014. 

The Flight 17 incident was likely the accidental downing of a civil airliner mistaken for a Ukrainian military transport by Russian-sponsored separatist forces; it could have been settled with an admission of error and financial restitution. Instead, Russia stonewalled an investigation, spread a fog of defamatory disinformation, and vetoed a UN resolution to create an investigative tribunal. Angry relatives of the victims are in no doubt about Russia’s culpability.

Cyberattacks could also apply to designating Russia as a terrorist state. The Bush administration removed North Korea from the terror list in 2008 as part of its failed efforts to constrain Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. But North Korea’s hacking of Sony Pictures in 2014 was one reason the Trump administration put it back on the list in 2017.  

Why is placing Russia on a list of terrorism-supporting countries different from normal sanctions? The designation automatically prohibits a wide range of exports, credits, guarantees, and export licensing, and requires validated export licenses (with an implied presumption of denial) for trade in goods or technology controlled by the U.S. government for national security or foreign policy reasons. But that is probably not the main reason that Russia would abhor such a label.

The symbolic nature of the list, its reservation for extreme cases, would strike at Russia’s self-image and the grand pretense it displays to the world. To be placed as an outcast among a small collection of basket-case countries run by religious fanatics and the relatives of previous dictators would be deeply humiliating to Russia’s national pride in a gut-wrenching way that simply tightening their belts due to economic sanctions would not. After all, since time immemorial, Russia’s leaders have ordered a lot of belt tightening.

Since Peter the Great, Russia has presented itself as a top-tier great power with the same sophistication as western Europe. Hence the eager adoption of Western fashion, European court etiquette, and speaking French—with Peter going so far as to force the boards to shave their beards. Just like the European aristocrats, the tiny sliver of noble or wealthy Russians took the waters at Karlsbad and summered on the Riviera—a habit that continues with the oligarchs, because, quite apart from their need to launder ill-gotten riches in a safe bolt-hole, who would want to vacation in Novocherkassk? 

This worldly facade has never quite concealed a deep-seated cultural insecurity, the feeling that poor Russia will forever remain crude, backward, and disrespected. This dichotomy animated much of the debate among the 19th-century intelligentsia, which was divided between Westernizers embracing Europe and Slavophiles who rationalized Russia’s intractable differences with the West as the mark of spiritual superiority.

This schism carried on into the Soviet era in the guise of a debate between the merits of world revolution versus socialism in one country, a difference of opinion brought violently to a halt by Stalin’s primitive xenophobia and denunciation of “rootless cosmopolitanism” (a largely anti-Semitic euphemism). 

Today, Putin still benefits from the cultural backlash against the anything-goes atmosphere and economic insecurity of the post-Soviet 1990s. His gradual rehabilitation of Stalin is now complete, and those who document Stalin’s crimes are persecuted. An inward-looking, defensive Slavophilia flourishes under the rubric of Eurasianism, a hodgepodge of geopolitical ramblings whose chief proponent is Putin’s Rasputin-like court philosopher, Alexander Dugin.

In the end, for all its vaunting, despite the fact that it has a space program and wields a veto as a member of the UN Security Council, Russia still harbors a long-standing cultural inferiority complex toward the West. To be placed in a diplomatic leper colony would rankle and humiliate.

To be sure, putting Russia on the list of state sponsors of terror is no panacea. Indeed, the four weaker regimes show no signs of collapsing. But the United States and its partners are caught in a dilemma: They must try to dissuade Russia from launching an invasion with measures more effective than conventional economic sanctions, even as they have a manifest distaste for a military response. No sanctions regime will stop Putin from sending his tanks. But consigning Russia to the terrorist list would be a blow to pride and identity as well as the wallet.

America’s diplomats should warn the Kremlin now that by invading Ukraine they will place on themselves the label of a terrorist backwater, to be shunned like North Korea, Syria, and the other small and small-minded outliers of the 21st century.