Graham, Blumenthal unveil bill declaring Russia a state sponsor of terror

Two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a new defense agreement, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced a bill to declare Russia a state sponsor of terror.

Holding up a photo of Kim and Putin to start off the press conference unveiling the bill, Blumenthal said, “Exhibit A. I rest my case.”

Blumenthal described the photo of Putin and Kim as depicting “two of the most autocratic, atrocity-committing leaders in the world standing together.”

He also said the message sent by the U.S. labeling Russia a state sponsor of terrorism was as important as increased sanctions from the designation.

“This message to the world is as important in a moral sense as any practical consequence. Russia deserves to be in this small selective club of atrocity-committing killers,” the Democrat said.

Graham introduced a Senate resolution during the last Congress to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. That resolution passed the Senate, but it was nonbinding, only calling on the secretary of State to make the distinction himself.

The bill introduced Thursday would require the State Department to classify Russia as a state sponsor of terror, which would unlock a new set of sanctions, restrict any U.S.-based foreign aid, and severely curtail immunity for Russia from suits in the U.S.

If the bill passes, U.S. nationals could sue a state sponsor of terror for offenses like torture, extrajudicial killing and hostage-taking.

If those lawsuits prevail, plaintiffs could get compensation from the sanctioned nation’s seized assets.

In the past, a court ordered Iran to pay nearly $9 billion to victims of the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon and North Korea to pay more than $500 million to the family of student Otto Warmbier, who died in North Korean custody.

Under the resolution, Graham and Blumenthal would allow for diplomatic exceptions and the carving out of agriculture and medical trade. The bill also allows for the president to make a determination that Russia is no longer a state sponsor of terror and to quickly remove the designation without congressional approval.

Only four nations are currently U.S.-designated state sponsors of terror: Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Syria.

Ukraine, which has called on the U.S. to declare Russia a state sponsor of terror, is in its third year of defending itself against Russia’s invasion. Russia controls about a fifth of Ukraine, and the U.N., Western nations and Ukraine have all accused Russia of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including mass rape, summary executions, extrajudicial killings and the usage of chemical weapons.

The U.S. and Western allies have placed an increasing cascade of sanctions on Russia since 2014, when the country annexed Crimea, isolating the Russian economy from the West.

“We’re not trying to be provocative by labeling Putin a state sponsor of terrorism,” said Graham. “After the defense agreement between North Korea and Russia, it is time for us to push back. Now is the moment above all other moments. So I would urge the administration, given what Putin has done yesterday, let’s go all in and designate his regime for what it is: a state sponsor of terrorism.”

“Here’s a general rule: Anybody that does a defense agreement with North Korea should be a state sponsor,” he added.

Putin’s visit to North Korea marked the first time a Russian president has visited that country in 24 years. During the meeting, Putin and Kim announced a new partnership, vowing mutual aid and protection.

Blumenthal said that he has talked to the Biden administration about the resolution, saying they were “sympathetic to the goal.”

“We’re going to continue to work with them,” he added. “I think it’s time now for us to move forward. And they understand that we may have differences of approach or opinion, and I think they respect us for what we’re trying to do.”

In a statement to The Hill, a state department spokesperson wrote that designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terror would not be “the most effective nor strongest path forward to hold Russia accountable.

The State Department spokesperson added that the designation would “impact the unprecedented multilateral coordination that has made our sanctions so effective.”

The spokesperson said the designation would make it difficult to quickly reverse course in the case of negotiations and could tie up Russian assets in U.S. courts, preventing them from paying damages for the war.

The EU Parliament declared Russia a state sponsor of terror in 2022.

Graham and Blumenthal also made clear that this resolution was “not a substitute” for continued military aid to Ukraine. The U.S. passed a $61 billion aid package for Ukraine in May.

“This is not a substitute for providing military aid,” Blumenthal said.

Laura Kelly contributed.

This story was updated at 9:20 p.m.

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