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The Case for Designating the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias as Foreign Terrorist Organizations

Saraphin Dhanani
Monday, October 24, 2022, 2:38 PM

As Russian occupation of four Ukrainian territories rages on, the U.S. may have an additional tool in its arsenal: designating the Russian-backed separatist forces, the Donetsk People’s Militia and the Luhansk People’s Militia, as foreign terrorist organizations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Bucha in April. (Rawpixel,, CC0 1.0,

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On Sept. 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to officially annex the Ukrainian territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson following a sham referendum process in each of the oblasts.

Since then, Russian aggression in the occupied territories has accelerated. On Oct. 19, President Putin declared martial law in the occupied territories to reestablish control over these lands, giving the Kremlin sweeping extrajudicial powers to restrict movement in and out of the occupied territories, conduct illegal searches of people and seizures of property, forcibly resettle residents, and detain civilians without bringing charges.

Domestically, in the United States, calls to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST) have intensified; they’ve been echoed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, too. Just last week, Estonia joined Latvia and Lithuania in designating Russia an SST. But an SST designation is not without pitfalls, the principal one being that it would fracture the U.S.’s diplomatic relations with Russia for the foreseeable future and possibly even prolong the conflict in Ukraine.

That said, as the politics and efficacies of an SST designation are hashed out in U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s office, it may be worth exploring an additional option that still exists in the U.S.’s arsenal of legal weapons: designating the Russian-backed separatist forces, the Donetsk People’s Militia and the Luhansk People’s Militia (collectively known as the Donbas People’s Militia) and their leaders, as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) as amended (codified at 8 U.S.C. § 1189). 

In this piece, I look at the pros and cons of such a designation—and whether it would have any marginal value over and above the sanctions already in place.

A Brief Primer on the Donbas Region and the Sanctions Already in Place

The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias formed in eastern Ukraine following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The forces took control of government buildings in the Donbas region before militia leaders proclaimed themselves the de facto “people’s” governments in the self-described Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR). With unsubtle Russian backing, they organized illegal referendums to form supposedly independent, pro-Russian republics. Ukraine, for its part, attempted to curb the violence and suppress the militias’ advance in its territories by signing the Minsk agreements with Russia—which sought to end the Donbas war through a series of measures, including a cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline, and restoring control of the state border to Ukraine—but the separatist groups, Russian military, and Ukrainian forces quickly flouted these agreements. Since then, the U.S. has regarded the Donbas as a “Russian-controlled” Ukrainian territory and the separatists in the region as “Russian-backed” forces. And, when referring to the so-called DPR and LPR territory in official government documents, the U.S. has put their names in quotation marks to reinforce the belief that the areas do not have a claim to sovereignty.

On March 6, 2014, President Obama signed Executive Order (E.O.) 13660, the first of many U.S. sanctions levied against Russia for its occupation of Ukraine. Undergirding E.O. 13660 was the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. § 1701) (IEEPA), which authorizes the U.S. government to impose sanctions and civil and criminal penalties against American residents and companies for violating its sanctions. Acting under E.O. 13660, the Treasury Department installed its first round of sanctions against the Donbas People’s Militia and its leadership directly. The department concluded that “[t]he Donbass People’s Militia is an armed pro-Russian separatist group of rebels fighting Government of Ukraine forces in eastern Ukraine and threatening the stability and security of Ukraine in the Donetsk region.”

Since then, E.O. 13660 has been relied on by two subsequent executive orders (E.O. 13685 and E.O. 13849), and its scope expanded thrice throughout three administrations—including E.O. 13661, E.O. 13662, and the most recent E.O. 14065. President Biden signed E.O. 14065 in February 2022 after Russia recognized the DPR and LPR as sovereign states just days before invading Ukraine. E.O. 14065 effectively expands the scope of U.S. sanctions against the Donbas People’s Militia to include the whole of the DPR and LPR and the separatist leaders in the territories. The sanctions bar American citizens and residents from business dealings in the territories and subject them to civil and criminal liabilities if violated. Furthermore, militia members and their leaders are barred from entering the U.S.; their assets in the U.S. are frozen indefinitely, as well. 

Despite the financial costs borne out of these sanctions (and similar sanctions imposed by our Western partners), U.S. sanctions have significant gaps, particularly with respect to foreign nationals and companies acting wholly abroad that maintain ties with and provide material support to the occupied territories. This latter group of foreign actors does not fall under IEEPA’s authority, which extends only to transactions involving persons and property “subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”

The U.S. may instead impose secondary designations targeting non-U.S. persons and companies that provide material support to sanctioned regimes, persons, and organizations. Indeed, Executive Orders 13660, 13685, 13662, and 14065—all of which impose sanctions on Russia—make clear that “any person[s] determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State … to have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, any person whose property and interests in property[,] are blocked pursuant to this order” (emphasis added). In other words, foreign actors who maintain business relationships with the DPR and LPR, for example, may be barred from transacting in the U.S. markets. The Treasury may freeze their assets, as well.  

In this way, secondary designations are a powerful tool to twist the arm of foreign actors to comply with U.S. sanctions. Foreign governments, for their part, scrutinize the U.S.’s secondary designations of their citizens as extraterritorial regulations that undercut the sovereignty of these countries. While I won’t comment on the merits of that argument, I will note that the argument is neither here nor there, because secondary designations are rather nugatory in the context of the Donbas case. Consider that much of the international community’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has generally aligned with the U.S.’s response. Foreign governments have levied their own sets of sweeping sanctions on the Donbas region, thereby prohibiting their citizens from providing material support to the DPR and LPR. The U.S. would not, in this scenario, impose secondary designations on these foreign nationals when restrictions are already imposed by their own country’s sanctions regimes.

In the case of major global powers that have not imposed their own sets of sanctions against Russia, it is unlikely that the U.S. will impose secondary sanctions against those countries’ citizens. This is in no small part because secondary sanctions predominantly have been imposed on Iranian-related authorities (which make up 68 percent of the total share of secondary sanctions imposed by the U.S.) and North Korean-related authorities (which make up 22 percent of the total share of secondary sanctions imposed by the U.S.). China’s share of secondary sanctions imposed by the U.S. trails at just 3 percent despite its long-standing and ongoing relationships with U.S.-sanctioned entities in Iran, North Korea, and even Russia.

The disparity in these numbers illustrates Washington’s reticence to impose sanctions, even if secondary, on major global players. Indeed, companies in India and Turkey, like China, have undermined Western sanctions since Russia invaded Ukraine and have thus benefited from reduced Russian oil prices. Although the U.S. has threatened to levy secondary sanctions against them, the threats have remained dormant in no small part because of the geopolitical risks they bear. In the case of China, specifically, imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese companies would not only affect the Chinese economy—which would brutally suffer if foreign, third-party providers were barred from transacting with Chinese companies—but would also steamroll the economies of Western countries that are intricately tied to China’s. At a time when the U.S. is treading lightly to unite the West against a rising (if not already risen) China and preserve some semblance of a rules-based international order, it would be unproductive for Washington to jeopardize its alliances across the Atlantic.

If aggressive secondary sanctions may be a nonstarter, perhaps the best way to choke the oxygen out from Russia at this point—particularly from its proxies in the DPR and LPR—is by designating the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias as foreign terrorist organizations.

A Designation Would Be Lawful

One good reason to designate the Donbas militias and their affiliated organizations is that a designation would be true: The groups in question do qualify as foreign terrorist groups under the statute.

The authority to designate an entity as an FTO under 8 U.S.C. § 1189 rests with the secretary of state and is subject to judicial review. The secretary of state, in consultation with the attorney general and the secretary of the treasury, may designate a group as an FTO if the secretary of state can show that the organization meets three statutory requirements: (1) the group is a foreign organization; (2) it is engaged in terrorist activities or terrorism; and (3) the terrorist activities or terrorism threatens the national security of the U.S. (national defense, foreign relations, or the U.S’s economic interests). Congress has seven days to block any designation, at which point it is made public in the Federal Register. An organization designated as an FTO has 30 days after the designation is made public to seek judicial review of the designation in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The D.C. Circuit Court limits its review to the first two prongs—that the group is a foreign organization and is engaged in terrorist activities or terrorism. In the case of People’s Mojahedin Org. of Iran v. U.S. Department of State, the court made clear that the third prong—that the terrorist activities or terrorism threatens the national security of the U.S.—constitutes a political question and is beyond the domain of the judiciary to adjudicate.

The Donetsk People’s Militia and the Luhansk People’s Militia are foreign organizations that can be likened to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah was conceived in 1982 on the heels of the Lebanon War. Since its earliest days, it has become a standing militia in no small part because of the military support—in the form of weapons and soldiers—dispatched by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Hezbollah has since received financial aid, training, and weaponry from Iran, effectively making it a proxy of the Islamic Republic. In 1997, the U.S. designated Hezbollah an FTO, citing its attacks and hostage takings targeting Americans, French, and Israelis in Lebanon.

The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias conception story is similar in this regard. From foot soldiers to principal commanders in the Donbas People’s Militia, Russian soldiers and volunteers have provided important human capital for the militias. In numerous interviews, Russian soldiers described their journey into eastern Ukraine and the instruction they received from their commanders to remove Russian insignia from their uniforms and vehicles before joining forces with the separatists in the Donbas. Moreover, despite Russia’s repeated denials of any involvement in the formation and operation of these militia groups, open-source investigators, journalists, and activists produced evidence of Russian weaponry in the territories including armored vehicles, artillery, anti-aircraft systems, and observation drones. Like Hezbollah for Iran, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militia are effectively Russian proxies.

Concerning the second prong of 8 U.S.C. § 1189, the Donbas People’s Militias have engaged in terrorist activities since their formation in 2014, including shooting down Malaysia Airline Flight 17, and, according to the State Department, “Russian-backed separatists in Donbas [have] engaged in abductions, torture, and unlawful detention, employed child soldiers, stifled dissent, and restricted humanitarian aid.” The United Nations echoed these claims, concluding that the separatists committed “torture, arbitrary and incommunicado detention, summary executions, forced labour, sexual violence, as well as the destruction and illegal seizure of property,” all of which “may amount to crimes against humanity.” There is an argument to be made that crimes against humanity are not synonymous with “terrorist activities.” But according to Section 212(a)(3)(B) of the INA, terrorist activities are defined as “any activity which is unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed” and includes “highjacking or sabotag[ing] any conveyance (including an aircraft, vessel, or vehicle”; “commit[ing] or … incit[ing] to commit [a terrorist activity], under circumstances indicating an intention to cause death or serious bodily injury”; and using “explosive[s], firearm[s], or other ... dangerous device[s] ... to endanger ... the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property.” The militias’ activities fit squarely within these definitions.

Finally, as E.O. 14065 and subsequent agency-specific sanctions state, the “‘so-called’ Donetsk and Luhansk People’s” militias’ occupation of the Donbas region, as well as Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, undermines international law, “contradicts Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements[,] further threatens the peace, stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and thereby constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” Moreover, the U.S. already has taken steps in the name of preserving its national security, including financial sanctions to restrict Russian access to American banking and financial services and export control measures on “sophisticated technologies designed and produced in the United States.” By severing U.S.-Russia trade relations, the U.S. is effectively ensuring that its financial channels and resources are not used by the Russians to occupy Ukraine, which would be counter to American national security and foreign policy interests.

Whatever policy objections there may be to their designations, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias clearly meet the threshold requirements for FTO designations. As foreign non-state organizations, their violent activities in Ukraine, coupled with explicit language from the Biden administration on the resulting national security threats, put the groups squarely within FTO territory.

What a Designation Would Accomplish

Designating the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias as FTOs is by no means a magic wand, for reasons I explore below, but it would add a few valuable tools to the U.S. arsenal.

To start, an FTO designation would implicate America’s material support statute under 18 U.S.C. § 2339B(a)(1), which makes it a crime to “knowingly provid[e] material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.” The term “material support or resources” is defined broadly under the statute and includes virtually any interaction with an FTO, including providing “property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safehouses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel … and transportation, except medicine or religious materials.”

The outer limits of the material support statute were articulated by the Supreme Court when it upheld that even material support rendered to an FTO for nonviolent, peaceable purposes was nevertheless in breach of the material support statute because terrorist groups could divert those resources to carry out their unlawful ends. In that case, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the court wrote that “designated foreign terrorist organizations do not maintain organizational firewalls between social, political, and terrorist operations, or financial firewalls between funds raised for humanitarian activities and those used to carry out terrorist attacks.” The Court also made clear that the statute was compatible with the First Amendment right to free speech; plaintiffs are not barred from pursuing their political advocacy in support of such groups so long as the advocacy is independent of any FTO’s coordination or interference.

The material support statute is a heavy cudgel when combined with an FTO designation. Even well-meaning humanitarian charity groups are deterred from rendering any support, even independently, to FTOs. Penalties are hefty and include companies and organizations having their assets frozen in the U.S., civil penalties of up to $50,000 per violation or twice the amount of the illegal transaction, and criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison (or up to life if the death of any person results). In combination with the conspiracy statute, the material support statute continues to be the bread-and-butter tool of U.S. counterterrorism policy in the criminal arena.

Second, unlike the sanctions already in place—which, admittedly, already have a material support provision articulated in the executive orders—the broad scope of the material support statute implicated by an FTO designation goes a step further and empowers the U.S. with prosecutorial powers over all persons or entities that provide material support to designated FTOs. Put another way, it would be a crime not just for U.S. residents, but also for foreign persons and entities to provide support to the DPR and LPR and related persons and entities. One of the starkest examples of the U.S.’s prosecutorial reach under the material support statute is highlighted in the case of United States v. Ahmed, in which three Somali-born defendants—two who were Swedish nationals and one who was a British resident—were prosecuted in the Eastern District of New York for knowingly and intentionally providing material support, including weapons and currency, to al-Shabaab, a designated FTO in the U.S.

The defendants were captured in Djibouti before they were transferred to FBI custody and flown to the U.S. On its face, the crime didn’t involve the U.S., which would normally mean that the U.S. would not have jurisdiction over these men and their actions. Indeed, none of them had set foot in the U.S. until their transfer to FBI custody, and they claimed their acts of terrorism were not aimed at the U.S.

But the district court found a nexus on the grounds that al-Shabaab had made public threats directed toward the U.S. The Court held that “because the ‘[alleged] aim of [their] activity[, in materially assisting al-Shabaab to carry out its mission,] was to cause harm inside the United States or to U.S. citizens or interests,’ there [was] sufficient ‘territorial nexus’ with the United States.”

The Ahmed court relied on the case of United States v. Kassar in reaching its holding. Kassar was a similar case, in which a Spanish national and resident violated the material support statute for negotiating an arms deal with undercover U.S. law enforcement agents posing as members of FARC, a designated FTO at the time. The Kassar court found jurisdiction on the basis that the weapons were supplied to the undercover agents with the knowledge that the weapons would be used against U.S. military personnel and, in effect, cause harm to U.S. citizens and interests. In both cases, and many more like them, the material support statute under §­ 2339B gives the U.S. broad extraterritorial jurisdiction over noncitizens acting entirely abroad and providing material support to designated FTOs.

In the case of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias, FTO designations would likewise give the U.S. potential jurisdiction over any Russian, Ukrainian, or other foreign nationals offering assistance of any kind to Russia’s puppet governments.

Third, prominent Russian citizens with ties to the U.S. have much to lose if the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias are designated as FTOs. A designation would force them to choose between their support of the DPR and LPR and their ability to move freely in the world. As just one example, take the case of the Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko. She made headlines in May 2022, when she withdrew from her performance at the New York City Metropolitan Opera House (the Met) after she refused to comply with the Met’s condition that she repudiate her support for Putin. More important for present purposes, however, was her donation to the Donetsk Opera House in December 2014—after Russia had illegally annexed Crimea; she handed funds to separatist leader, Oleg Tsaryov, and posed for a photo with him. In a world where the Donbas militias are designated as FTOs, such financial gestures would put her squarely in breach of the material support statute and subject her to future prosecution in the U.S. Her ability to travel and practice her art beyond the shores of Russia and certain neighboring countries would be limited. A world in which Russian artists and cultural figures are within reach of the U.S.’s extraterritorial jurisdiction may help counter the pressure Putin puts on them to stick to the party line.

Fourth, a designation might, to some degree, relieve international pressure on the designate Russia as an SST, a step that might carry severe and unintended consequences. Delaney Simon and Michael Hanna of the International Crisis Group have delved deeply into the geopolitical risks of doing so—the merits of which I don’t consider here. Diplomatically, they argue, listing Russia as an SST may make international cooperation and global crisis management increasingly challenging in the future and, as Russia has warned, could upend the U.S.’s diplomatic relations with the Kremlin altogether. A designation also may undercut the long-standing U.S.-Russia cooperation on nonproliferation, research in the Arctic, and biomedical research, to name a few matters. Economically, an SST designation could further deplete Russia’s already fragile economy and have ripple effects in the region—with especially devastating effects in financially strapped Central Asian countries. Finally, once designated, rescission may be difficult in no small part because of domestic resistance. Simon and Hanna also note that Putin may read the designation as the U.S. provoking regime change in the country, given that one statutory path to rescission involves a change in the designated country’s leadership.

My point is not to endorse these arguments. But President Biden already has made clear that the U.S. is not in the business of regime change in Russia, and the administration does not favor tying its own hands with a state sponsorship designation, which would also let private parties sue Russia for human rights violations in U.S. courts.

An FTO designation of the Donbas People’s Militia is a more robust measure in practical terms against Russia than designating the country as an SST. The principal consequence of a foreign terrorist group designation would be criminal liability for individuals who engage with the groups. The principal consequence of designating Russia as an SST would be to allow civil suits in U.S. courts against the Russian state—a result that could cause serious headaches for U.S. policy. Focusing on the non-state groups, rather than the state criminality—which is better thought of in the language of genocide and war crimes than terrorism, in any case—would send a similar international message to designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism but would do so without the collateral risk to U.S. interests.

The Downsides to Designation

While a designation would be lawful and justified, some factors cut against FTO designations in the Donbas region on policy grounds. The first concerns the added value of an FTO designation relative to the sanctions already in place, the second concerns the extent to which plaintiffs would bring cases to U.S. federal courts for FTO violations, the third concerns the likelihood that U.S. federal courts will hear these cases many years into the future, and the final concerns the U.S.’s diplomatic relationship with Russia. I will address each of these issues in turn.

First, Executive Orders 13660, 13685, 13662, and 14065—all of which impose sanctions on Russia—already have a material support provision in place; foreign actors who provide material support to the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias could be vulnerable to secondary designations. As mentioned earlier, though, these material support provisions have largely remained dormant. What, then, is the benefit of designating the militia groups in Donbas as FTOs if the U.S. already has the authority to impose secondary designations on foreign actors who provide material support to the DPR and LPR and has not yet practiced this authority?

For starters, FTO designations are not intended to be panaceas, nor are they intended to be extensions of the U.S.’s sanctions policies. Material support provisions undergirding the U.S.’s sanctions policies are economic in nature and, therefore, function differently than an FTO designation would. The comparative advantage of an FTO designation is that it empowers the U.S. with extraterritorial jurisdiction over foreign nationals. The fear of getting caught up in the U.S.’s jurisdictional remit conveniently deters foreign actors from rendering support to FTOs, which stymies the FTOs’ military and political capabilities and, ultimately, pushes them out of the terrorism business. But the economic consequences borne out of an FTO designation are secondary; America’s broad legal authority to prosecute all actors, even those beyond U.S. shores, is what makes FTO designations unique relative to America’s bread-and-butter sanctions regime.

Second, while it is true that the added benefit of the material support statute is that it expands the U.S.’s traditional prosecution powers under IEEPA and authorizes the U.S. government to prosecute foreign nationals and entities, a question still lingers: Who will bring these cases to U.S. federal courts in the first place? The U.S. currently does not seem to have a critical mass of Russians supporting the Donbas militias. And it is unlikely that the individuals in Russia who are providing material support in the region will try to come to the U.S.

Rather, the Ukrainian justice system has more direct jurisdiction over and is equipped to prosecute foreign nationals, companies, and even captured militants of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias. So what is the added benefit of the U.S. having broad jurisdictional authority through an FTO designation?

There is no doubt that Ukraine has some wherewithal to prosecute foreign nationals, entities, and captured militia fighters themselves. But the Zelenskyy government is in an ongoing military conflict with Russia. Even if Ukraine’s justice system is capable of trying many of these cases, it will not have the ability to try them all, and it may not have the ability to focus on the issue at present—at least not by itself. Given how broad America's presence is and how likely it is that foreign nationals and military fighters in the Donbas People’s Militias will find themselves in European countries with law enforcement ties to the U.S., equipping the U.S. with broad prosecutorial powers could provide the Ukrainians with meaningful law enforcement assistance. Moreover, as Ukraine retakes its territories, its justice system will be overloaded with these types of cases. In a world where the U.S. has concurrent jurisdiction with Ukraine to prosecute foreign nationals, companies, Russians, and Ukrainians who supported the Donbas region during the war, it could help alleviate Ukrainian courts of their overloaded dockets.

Third, even if these cases are brought to U.S. federal courts, they won’t be ripe for litigation until at least a couple of years into the future, and still a few years after that before courts render their final judgments. How likely is it, then, that the U.S. will expend its resources and try cases of foreign actors acting entirely abroad who’ve rendered material support to designated FTOs? And even if it does hear these cases, how big is the value add of U.S. extraterritorial jurisdiction when its powers will remain latent until many years into the future?

This question of “value add” is exemplified in the latest case of Lafarge S.A., a global building materials manufacturer headquartered in Paris, France. Just last week, the foreign corporate actor and its subsidiary in Syria pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support (approximately $80 million) to ISIS and al-Nusrah Front (ANF), two designated FTOs, from 2013 to 2014. The subsidiary negotiated revenue-sharing agreements and paid monthly “donations” to the terrorist organizations to streamline Lafarge’s business operations in the area. These efforts were part and parcel of the company “‘enhanc[ing] [its own] profits and increas[ing] market share—all while ISIS engaged in a notorious campaign of violence during the Syrian civil war.’” To add insult to injury, Lafarge and its subsidiary actively concealed their scheme, falsified records, and backdated contracts to avoid detection for violating the material support statute.

This case marks the first time the Department of Justice has charged a foreign corporation for materially supporting an FTO. The final verdict was rendered nearly 10 years after the underlying material support crime had occurred and demonstrates that time does not necessarily dissuade the U.S. government from prosecuting foreign actors for providing material support to FTOs. Moreover, the Lafarge case also signifies the government’s growing appetite to hold foreign actors, including foreign corporations, accountable for assisting FTOs. To equip the U.S. with these broad prosecutorial powers and add a tool to its arsenal of legal powers—even if this tool is not utilized for many years—FTO designations of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias are key.

The fourth argument against FTO designation is that it would spur, not slow down, the calls for the designation of Russia as an SST. If the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias are designated as FTOs, after all, then the next logical step would be to list Russia, the country that sponsors them, as a state sponsor of terrorism. If the goal is to let some of the air out of the balloon on state sponsorship designation, an FTO designation could backfire.

This concern may be overstated. Anna Meir argued on Lawfare that FTO designations are a political process, with larger geopolitical considerations taking precedence in deciding which organizations or countries do or do not get designated. Consider the case of the Pakistani militant organization, the Haqqani network, for example. Meir notes that the group’s close ties with the Pakistani intelligence community would seem to have implied listing Pakistan as an SST. And yet, when the State Department listed the Haqqani network as an FTO in 2012, President Obama left Pakistan unlisted to preserve U.S. security interests in South Asia. In summation, although designating Russia as an SST would be logically consistent with FTO designations of the militia groups in Donbas, it doesn’t necessarily follow from it.


As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rages on, an FTO designation of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Militias could halt significant material support rendered to the Donbas region. While it is true that the designation won’t guarantee a decisive victory for Ukraine, the symbolic value of the designation coupled with the U.S.’s concurrent jurisdiction over foreign nationals providing material support in the Donbas could be the added grease the Zelenskyy administration needs to isolate the separatist groups in the occupied territories, weaken their ability to govern in the region, and pave the way to hold the separatists and their supporters accountable under the rule of law, whether now or indefinitely into the future.


Editor’s note: After publishing this piece, we received correspondence from the general manager for Anna Netrebko, who submitted the following statement:

Ms. Netrebko does not support the DPR or LPR; her December 2014 donation was solely intended for the singers and employees of the Donetsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre (located in a war-torn city in the Donbas region, not Crimea). As confirmed by the newspaper The Guardian, the cash successfully arrived and helped “everyone from the general director to the cleaners”. Ms. Netrebko has explained that until then she was unfamiliar with Oleg Tsaryov and the significance of the flag that he unfurled for an improvised photo op; she had been told in general terms that this individual was the only person that could insure that the funds would safely arrive at the opera house. Ms. Netrebko did not withdraw from any performances from the Metropolitan Opera after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The general manager of that opera house invented a non-contractual obligation that Ms. Netrebko could not fulfil and he wrongfully terminated her agreements through the press. Ms. Netrebko does not publicly support Vladimir Putin; her statement on March 30, 2022, characterized her arm’s-length relationship with Putin; her subsequent interviews in Le Monde and Die Zeit clarified any residual misunderstandings that may suggest otherwise.

Saraphin Dhanani is the Legal Fellow at the Lawfare Institute. She previously worked at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Ambassador for Human Rights and in the Markets Group at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. She holds a B.A. from Wellesley College, where she was a Fellow and Ambassador at the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute, and a J.D. from Stanford Law School, where she was the Senior Articles Editor of the Stanford Law Review.

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