The Biden administration has been working with Congress over the last several months on legislation that would formally designate Russia as an “aggressor state,” sources familiar with the deliberations told CNN.
The “aggressor state” label is less hawkish than the “state sponsor of terrorism” label that many lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had been pushing the Biden administration to impose on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
An aggressor state designation, unlike the label state sponsor of terrorism, is not an official State Department category that would trigger specific US sanctions, and critics say it would be easier for the president to rescind that designation than the state sponsor of terrorism one.
But it would give the president additional authorities to impose more sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion, and Zelensky may still endorse the label when he addresses Congress on Wednesday evening, sources familiar with the deliberations said.
If he does, Pelosi could introduce the legislation as a standalone bill this week, the persons said. But it is unclear how both chambers could get it passed before they gavel out for recess, which would mark the end of the 117th Congress. Republicans will take over the House when Congress returns in January. The Hill was first to report that the legislation is being considered.
The White House has long resisted designating Russia as a state sponsor of terror, citing the negative consequences such a label could have on the ongoing diplomacy between the US and Russia on issues such as prisoner swaps, the United Nations-brokered deal to allow grain out of Ukraine, cross-border aid to Syria and other humanitarian efforts.
“We’re working with Congress right now on legislation that would help us get around some of the challenges of using the state sponsor of terrorism designation,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a CNN interview earlier this month, adding that the label would have “some unintended consequences.”
Sources familiar with the deliberations said the administration shared a white paper with lawmakers and staffers in the fall outlining potential solutions, including the aggressor state designation.
A senior administration official confirmed to CNN that “we are in contact with Congress on new accountability mechanisms it is working on – ones that would not come with the unintended, harmful global consequences of an SST designation and actually address the case of Russia’s atrocities and aggression in an effective way.”
Another source who has been working on the proposal described it as a reasonable compromise.
“It is a good avenue to continue pressuring Russia, when the state sponsor of terrorism designation has so many undesirable unintended consequences,” this person said.
But Republican lawmakers and congressional aides opposed to the proposed legislation expressed concern that it would give the administration greater leeway to remove sanctions unilaterally should Russia signal an openness to peace talks with Ukraine, and complained that the label does not have any real teeth to hold Russia accountable.
“The proposed ‘Aggressor State’ designation is a poor substitute for what Ukraine has called for: a State Sponsor of Terror designation for Russia,” Texas Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a tweet on Tuesday. “This new designation fails to hold Putin accountable for his heinous war crimes and unprovoked war against Ukraine.”
The aides told CNN that GOP staffers have told Zelensky’s office that they believe the designation is inconsequential. But it is still unclear whether Zelensky will publicly endorse the idea, one of the aides said.
A draft of the proposal obtained by CNN calls for imposing tough new sanctions on senior Russian government officials who the president determines are complicit in “aggressor state” tactics, including undermining Ukraine’s democratic processes, threatening its territorial sovereignty, misappropriating Ukraine’s assets and asserting authority over any Ukrainian territory without Kyiv’s authorization.
The White House’s view is that the legislation would give the administration new authorities to impose costs on Russia for the war, officials said.
But the law would also allow the president to waive or rescind sanctions if he determines it is in the national security interests of the United States, a key detail that is already sparking outrage among some Ukrainian American civil society groups.
“This new proposed designation would do nothing to change Russian actions, to seize Russian state assets, or to meaningfully hold Russia’s government accountable, and simply relies on Executive Branch discretion to determine when Russia’s aggression against Ukraine ends,” the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Razom and the Joint Baltic American National Committee said in a statement released on Tuesday night.
“We, the undersigned, fear that this ‘Aggressor State’ proposed designation sets the groundwork for easing sanctions and returning frozen assets to war criminals as part of premature negotiations with Russia,” the groups added. “While the US Government, Congress, and President Biden have done much to support Ukraine, the ‘Aggressor State’ proposal is counterproductive and should not be adopted.”