The United States said Tuesday it is ending the U.S. Agency for
International Development's operations in Russia after a Kremlin demand
that the aid organization leave the country, dealing a blow to President
Barack Obama's policy of "resetting" relations between Washington and
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told
reporters that Russia sent a letter last week saying it didn't need
Washington's help anymore. She didn't cite a political reason for the
closure, but President Vladimir Putin has long complained about U.S.
democracy and human rights promotion efforts.
The aid agency has
worked in Russia since the Soviet Union's collapse 20 years ago,
promoting what it says is "a more open and innovative society and a
strengthened partnership between Russia and the United States" and
spending some $2.7 billion. It planned $50 million in programs this
"We are extremely proud of what USAID has accomplished in
Russia over the past two decades," Nuland said. "While USAID's physical
presence in Russia will come to an end, we remain committed to
supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust
civil society in Russia."
Nuland didn't criticize Russia for its
action. But she said the money went to a wide variety of initiatives,
such as fighting AIDS and tuberculosis, helping orphans and victims of
trafficking, and improving the protection of wildlife and the
environment. About 60 percent of annual funds go to governance, human
rights and democracy programs.
"It is our hope that Russia will now itself assume full responsibility and take forward all of this work," she said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
end of USAID's Russia work is the latest setback in the U.S.-Russia
relationship, which has included bitter disagreements on issues from
missile defense to ending Syria's civil war. That has led to criticism
from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and others about the
merits of the Obama administration's much-touted effort to patch up
relations with the Kremlin, which yielded an agreement last year to
reduce the U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons arsenals.
decision is "an insult to the United States and a finger in the eye of
the Obama administration, which has consistently trumpeted the alleged
success of its so-called 'reset' policy toward Moscow," said Arizona
Republican Sen. John McCain. He said it was essential to pass a bill
under consideration that is named after lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who
died in a Russian prison amid torture allegations three years ago, and
would link trade benefits to Russia with sanctions against Russian
government officials responsible for human rights violations.
U.S.-based human rights group Freedom House said Russia's deadline for
USAID to cease activities is Oct. 1, but Nuland didn't say when the
agency would pull out completely from Russia. It employs 13 Americans in
Russia and about 60 local staffers.
While no new contracting is
taking place, Nuland said officials wanted to "wind these programs down
responsibly." That includes looking for ways to continue working with
Russian nongovernmental organizations to safeguard programs that "a lot
of Russians are dependent on," she said.
USAID's ordered departure
comes amid a broader crackdown on Russian civil society groups after
fraud-tainted parliamentary election last year prompted massive
anti-government protests. Putin blamed Washington for trying to
destabilize Russia and accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
for signaling the start of demonstrations.
NGOs receiving foreign
funding and engaging in political activity must now register as
"foreign agents," which is likely to undermine their credibility among
Russians. Another law sharply increases the punishment for taking part
in an unauthorized protest rallies. State television has denounced the
country's only independent election-monitoring body, Golos.
the USAID office "is an unfriendly move toward the U.S.," said Grigory
Melkonyants, the deputy director of Golos, which gets most of its
funding from the U.S. He criticized the Kremlin's "paranoia and
nervousness" and "inability to understand the reasons behind serious
public discontent. They are looking elsewhere for culprits and think
it's rooted in the American funding."
Putin and his circle have
long exploited suspicion of foreign involvement in the country, but he
has stepped up the campaign over the last year. Although he returned as
president in May, he is under increasing criticism in Russian society
and even in the once-submissive parliament.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.