Putin, who has always disliked what he considers U.S. attempts to influence events in his country, has mounted a steadily escalating attack on organizations that accept foreign money — an attack that began during the Russian election campaign earlier this year and that hasn’t let up.
The amount of money that USAID provides to Russian organizations is not large — about $50 million this year, down considerably from the heights of the 1990s. But the expulsion is a very public slap at the United States that will give ammunition to those who view Russia as a major U.S. adversary.
The move will almost certainly further demoralize and isolate embattled Russian activists, with the heaviest weight falling on Russian organizations that have received U.S. support — groups that monitor elections, organize to deal with tuberculosis, advocate for human rights, defend the environment and work to improve education.
Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said the order was delivered in a letter to Washington last week.
No matter who wins the presidential election in November, the expulsion is likely to make relations with Russia even less of a priority for Washington than it has been in recent years, which might or might not suit Putin’s needs. The Obama administration has already come close to the end of its so-far-futile efforts to win Russian support for a joint policy on Syria.
‘A very bad signal’
A senior administration official said the USAID ouster did not necessarily mean the end of U.S. assistance. It was not immediately clear, for example, whether American money could be conveyed in other ways, without the oversight of USAID staff. “We are going to look for other ways to establish the general policy objectives we established at the beginning of the Obama administration,” the official said.
Some U.S.-government supported organizations will continue to work in Russia, including the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy.
But Lilia Shibanova, the head of the election monitoring agency Golos, said the loss of USAID’s help suggested difficult days ahead. Golos was thrown out of its office and publicly vilified after Putin criticized the organization.
“This is a very bad signal,” she told the Ria-Novosti news agency Tuesday. “USAID has been our partner since 2002. I believe they have done a lot for Russian people, for the support of the human rights organizations and development of free journalism in Russia.”
The White House’s reset of relations with Russia nearly four years ago was based on finding areas of agreement where U.S. and Russian interests intersected, including Iran, Afghanistan and arms control. Human rights and civil society development have always been outside that framework.