September 19, 2012

IN WHAT HAS been a steadily escalating campaign to shore up his power after a bumpy return to Russia’s presidency, Vladi­mir Putin has delivered an audacious double blow. By ending cooperation with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), he has deprived a host of Russian pro-democracy organizations of critical funding — and administered a sharp rebuff to the United States, which he portrays as an adversary. This coup, delivered in a diplomatic note on Sept. 11, was, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) aptly put it, “a finger in the eye of the Obama administration.”

You wouldn’t have known that, however, from listening Tuesday to the State Department. In announcing the Russian decision, State carefully avoided criticizing USAID’s eviction from Moscow. Asked whether the administration was disappointed, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeatedly described the cutoff of $29 million in funding for democracy and civil society programs as “a sovereign decision.” When asked if it affected the administration’s much-promoted “reset” of relations with Russia, she said: “When we talk about the reset, we talk primarily about global and regional foreign policy issues on which we work together.” (On Wednesday, after the Russian foreign ministry claimed that USAID had been shut down for meddling in elections, Ms. Nuland called the decision “regrettable.”)

Perhaps this laconic response can be attributed to the administration’s election-eve unwillingness to acknowledge a setback in one of its signature foreign policies; challenger Mitt Romney has been a trenchant critic of the “reset.” Still, it’s disheartening to hear officials describe support for democracy as marginal to U.S. relations with Russia, at the very moment when pressure for political change there is greater than it has been in more than a decade.

Since announcing his return to the presidency last year, Mr. Putin has faced a swelling opposition movement. In its attempt to squelch it, the Kremlin has concocted legal charges against leaders, ramped up penalties for participation in “illegal” protests and rammed through a law requiring non-governmental organizations that receive foreign funds to register as “foreign agents.” Its booting of USAID will strip funding to groups such as Golos, an independent election monitoring group that publicized fraud in Mr. Putin’s reelection as president last March.

This is a time for the United States to redouble its support for Russian democracy, rather than quietly accepting the shutdown of its programs. Officials say they will try to provide funding by other means; one way of doing so would be to create a new $50 million fund to support Russian civil society organizations. The Obama administration proposed this initiative to Congress last year but met resistance from Republicans.

Similar shortsightedness by House Republicans recently prevented the passage of the Sergei Magnitsky bill, which would punish Russian officials guilty of human rights abuses by freezing their U.S. assets and banning them from receiving visas. The Obama administration long resisted the bill but now is prepared to accept it if it is linked to legislation that would remove restrictions on trade. Passage of the Magnitsky bill and the new democracy fund would be an appropriate response to Mr. Putin; Congress should make those a priority.