Europe has labelled Russia a state sponsor of terror. What next?

The Ukrainian flag, centre right, flies outside the European Parliament [File: Jean-Francois Badias/AP]

Experts say the European Parliament’s move is largely symbolic and unlikely to be applied to other aggressor nations, such as Syria.

Brussels, Belgium – The European Parliament has declared Russia as a “state sponsor of terrorism”, saying Russian atrocities against Ukrainians and the destruction of civilian infrastructure violate international and humanitarian laws.

The Parliament’s move on Wednesday was welcomed by Ukrainian officials, who have been pushing the European Union and NATO countries to label Russia a terrorist state.

“Russia is a terrorist state: confirmed by the European Parliament. Russia has a history of acts of terror against sovereign states, support for terrorist regimes and organisations including Wagner, war of terror on Ukraine,” Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted as he thanked the European Parliament for its “clear stance” towards Russia.

However, the European Parliament’s Russia label is not legally binding.

“The EU has no centralised list of state sponsors of terrorism and no equivalent mechanism. So there will not be any immediate legal consequences. The European Parliament has limited influence in foreign policy decision-making, which is under the purview of the 27 EU member states,” Sajjan M Gohel, counterterrorism expert and guest lecturer at the London School of Economics (LSE), told Al Jazeera.

The Parliament’s declaration “is largely a symbolic indictment of Russia’s actions in Ukraine” he said.

While the declaration mainly focussed on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the Parliament also called on EU leaders to include the Russian paramilitary organisation the Wagner Group of mercenary fighters, known for some awful atrocities in Syria, and Russia’s 141st Special Motorised Regiment, the Kadyrovites – infmaous for brutal operations in Syria and Ukraine – to the EU’s terror list.

This list was established by the bloc in 2001 as a counterterrorism initiative as a response to the September 11 attacks in New York.

So far, the EU has declared 13 individuals and 21 groups and entities, including ISIL and al-Qaeda as terrorists – and slapped sanctions on them.

Members of the European Parliament hope their stance towards Russia, announced at its headquarters in Strasbourg, will spur a move towards a legal structure that will allow for states to be labelled as sponsors of terrorism, and then include Russia in such a list.

Bruno Lété, senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels, told Al Jazeera that the Parliament seeks to isolate Russia internationally.

“Firstly, through this announcement, the European Parliament is keen to pressurise EU member states to take a stronger stance towards Russia, compared to its allies across the Atlantic who have not yet called Russia a terrorist state,” he said.

“Secondly, there has been a lot of talk of setting up a separate court to investigate the war crimes and human rights violations carried out by Russia in Ukraine. Parliament’s declaration could speed up that process,” he added.

The Kremlin retaliated angrily.

“I propose designating the European Parliament as a sponsor of idiocy,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on Telegram.

Hours after the declaration, Moscow launched a string of missiles across Ukraine – a sequence of events not lost on Ukrainian ministerial adviser Anton Gerashchenko, who tweeted, “Rockets hit Kyiv right after European Parliament recognized Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Meanwhile, the European Parliament’s website faced a “sophisticated cyberattack” according to the Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola.

“A pro-Kremlin group has claimed responsibility. Our IT experts are pushing back against it & protecting our systems. This, after we proclaimed Russia as a state-sponsor of terrorism.

My response: #SlavaUkraini,” she said in a tweet.

Oleg Ignatov, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Russia, told Al Jazeera that a like-for-like response from Moscow was unlikely, since the label is merely symbolic.

“Moscow would be more hurt if this recognition came from the US. Such a decision would have concrete legal consequences. Individuals could then sue the Russian state in US courts and claim compensation from Russian state money and property abroad,” he said.

Divides across the European political spectrum

Russia is the first state to be declared a sponsor of terrorism by the European Parliament.

But the vote was not passed unanimously, with members of right-wing political blocs within the European parliament refusing to deem Russia as affiliated with terrorism.

An overwhelming number of legislators – 494 – voted “yes”.

But 58 voted “no” votes and 44 abstained.

INTERACTIVE- European Parliament vote on labelling Russia terrorist state

“Resolutions can only be adopted depending on support and on the vote. Even here … we see that the political spectrum was quite divided,” said Lété.

“The central parties, the parties in the middle, the Liberals, the socialists, they all voted overwhelmingly.

“But [on the] extreme spectrum, you see that sometimes was less so.”

He said that a similar voting pattern would likely emerge if European officials tried to put other nations in the same bracket.

“I think that’s the same for … Syria or other countries. It all depends on the political support for such a resolution. And I don’t see it happening right now for these other countries.

“You know, I think that with Ukraine, there’s a very intense emotional bond and reaction here in Europe, less so with countries that are further away.”

So far, Washington’s terror list includes Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Iran as countries which “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

Ignatov explained that the administration of US President Joe Biden has resisted labelling Russia as this would likely close channels of dialogue with Moscow.

“Moscow has admitted that it could break off diplomatic relations with Washington if it makes such a move. Washington wants to leave the path open for Russia to exit the war in Ukraine through diplomacy,” Ignatov added.

It remains unclear what the European Parliament’s move may mean for the EU and the continuing war in Ukraine.

While leaders from the Baltic nations – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and Poland have called on the rest of the EU to label Russia as a terrorist state, a unified decision is yet to be made.

“Every EU nation is overwhelmingly in support of Ukraine. But basically, the vision on how to get to peace is sometimes different. We see that countries closer [in distance] to Russia, like the Baltics and Poland, want Ukraine to win the war. Whereas France or Germany, they want peace. And of course, these are two very different strategies, two very different visions,” Lété told Al Jazeera.

He added that down the road, the European declaration could make it hard for EU nations to abandon sanctions towards Russia if a peace deal were to be sought.

“But peace is dependent on the developments on the battlefield, and not such declarations,” he said.



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