WASHINGTON -- Less than a week after a Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine, a group of influential U.S. senators has authored a letter to Barack Obama urging the president to impose more severe sanctions on Russia and consider designating the self-declared "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) as a "foreign terrorist organization."
Leading Democratic Party Senators Dianne Feinstein (California), Robert Menendez (New Jersey), and Carl Levin (Michigan) wrote the letter to Obama on July 22.
The letter also called for the United States to impose "immediate broad sanctions against Russia's defense sector" and energy and financial industries.
The three senators pointed to what they said was "increasing evidence of their [DNR] human rights violations, including abductions and torture" that demonstrated the pro-Russian separatist leaders in Donetsk "have threatened the lives of innocent Ukrainians, not to mention those unfortunate innocents merely traveling in civilian airspace over Ukraine."
"They are likely the ones who attacked a civilian airliner," Levin told RFE/RL. "It works to putting additional pressure on stopping any aid that goes through that part of Ukraine."
Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) said he supported the effort. "Sure. Why not?" he told RFE/RL. "People that shoot down airplanes generally earn that designation."
He further pointed the finger at Russia. "That is pure fantasy to believe that they're [DNR] some kind of entity. They're not. They're Russian."
The State Department makes the designation about which groups appear on the list. There are currently no groups from Eastern Europe on the list of "foreign terrorist organizations" (FTO).
Being on the list makes it a crime to provide material support to the group, and freezes the financial accounts that the groups may have at a U.S. institution. (The DNR has already been sanctioned by the White House, therefore freezing any assets it may have in the United States.)
A State Department official declined to discuss internal deliberations into designations. "We will continue to track the situation and work to see that those responsible for the MH17 crash are held accountable," added the official.
Ukraine's government designated the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics" as terrorist organizations on May 16.
The Donetsk People's Republic has denied shooting down the plane, but residents near the crash site have told reporters that they saw a Buk missile launcher near the crash site.
Aleksandr Khodakovsky, commander of the pro-Russian Vostok Battalion, told Reuters on July 22 that the rebels were in possession of a Buk but denied responsibility for the plane's downing, again blaming the central government in Kyiv.
Jimmy Gurule, a former official with U.S. departments of Treasury and Justice, who now is a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, says that the designation could lead to prosecution. "Under U.S. law it's a federal felony to provide material support to an FTO. So any individuals that provide weapons, logistical support, financial support to a foreign terrorist organization could be criminally prosecuted for their assistance," he adds.
"The question here is: Are these acts of terrorism or are these lawful acts committed during an armed conflict, are they war crimes? I certainly don't think that the secretary of state is going to rush to that determination or judgment at this point, but I think that it's certainly another legal tool that's available and that could be used if the facts justify such a designation."
Carl Schreck contributed reporting to this article