According to the U.S. State Department, the Russian government has decided to end the activities of USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, in the Russian Federation. For the past two decades, the USAID mission in Russia has channeled U.S. foreign assistance totaling almost $3 billion to organizations, causes and projects intended to support “social and economic development” in Russia. In that time, USAID has done some real good, but considering the two sides’ fundamentally different views about the purposes of U.S. assistance, and the Kremlin’s acute sensitivity in the midst of widespread opposition protests, the decision to shut it down is no surprise.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, the very notion of Russians receiving foreign assistance is unacceptable – an affront to Russia’s national dignity. As the world’s largest country, a nuclear superpower, and the hub of one of history’s great civilizations, Russia finds it hard to accept any kind of assistance from abroad, no matter how necessary or useful it might be. While the high cost of the post-Communist transition permitted Russian officialdom to swallow its pride for a time, with a fast-growing Russian economy now buoyed by high global energy prices, there is no such excuse for accepting handouts, especially from the West.
The closure of the USAID mission in Russia is hardly the first move by the Kremlin to constrain U.S. assistance programs. In 2002, as Putin constructed the “power vertical” and clashed with Washington over the impending invasion of Iraq, Russia put an end to Peace Corps activities on its soil, suggesting that the program was a front for U.S. espionage. Two years ago, Russia pulled its support for the International Science and Technology Center, a multilateral institution chartered in 1992 primarily to coordinate and distribute assistance to former Soviet weapons experts who might otherwise have sold their unique services to rogue states or terrorist groups. Russia’s position was that after 18 years of assistance, it could take responsibility for its own scientific community, and in any case did not need Westerners sniffing around its most sensitive facilities.
As much as national pride, insecurity about the political motives of U.S. assistance makes the Kremlin bristle at the notion of a USAID mission committed to “supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.” To many Russians, Washington has no special claim on any of these values. After all, during the Cold War both sides routinely disguised proxy battles to install compliant strongmen in the Third World as interventions to protect human rights, freedom, and social welfare. It is not a stretch for some Russians to believe that U.S.-funded NGO’s, such as the election monitoring group GOLOS, are actually part of a strategy to overthrow the Russian government. That is why Russian politicians and official media have linked the Kremlin’s recent crackdown on NGO activity to the allegedly nefarious influence of “foreign agents.”
The Kremlin has made USAID and the State Department its main scapegoats in the struggle against foreign-backed political unrest in part because of America’s outsize role in world affairs and the Russian popular consciousness, especially since the start of the so-called Arab Spring. U.S. rhetoric heralding the political awakening of the Arab world as a march toward self-determination and democracy has provoked bitter cynicism from the Russian leadership, who accuse U.S. officials of orchestrating everything from the pre-election protests to the Pussy Riot video. It is easier for many Russians – on both sides of the protest movement – to believe that Washington harbors a grand strategy for regime change in Russia, than to accept the reality that Russia factors very little into U.S. politics or policy. After all, if Americans are prepared to invest billions of dollars and thousands of lives in democracy-building projects in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, surely they would lavish support upon Russia’s pro-American liberal opposition.
If the end of the USAID mission in Russia heralds a new round of tit-for-tat retaliation between Moscow and Washington, there is a serious risk that foundations for cooperation painstakingly built over the past two decades – to say nothing of more recent progress on visa facilitation, adoptions, and free trade – will crumble. In U.S.-Russia relations, everything is linked, and a blast of wintry wind from USAID’s shutdown could have a chilling effect on bilateral cooperation in other spheres, from nuclear security to supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan. There may be no going back to the halcyon optimism of the 2009 “reset,” but as this year of elections and protests draws to a close, both sides should take a hard look at recent history, and think hard about the future. We can’t afford to let our lingering differences destroy the progress we have made.