Why USAID is leaving Russia
September 20th, 2012
10:31 AM ET

Why USAID is leaving Russia

By Matthew Rojansky, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matthew A. Rojansky is deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The views expressed are his own.

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.

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Topics: Aid • Russia

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soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Kris Moe

    Their lose, let's bring that money home to help our people!

    September 20, 2012 at 11:04 am | Reply
  2. Spaulding

    Im sure Assad wishes he cut usaid to...lol

    September 20, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
  3. ragozzi

    US is supporting and funding Russian opposition, many people in Russia have no doubts about that. And as far as cooperation goes, yes of course it would be great to cooperate, but it has to be on equal terms, which would mean US acceptance of Russian "regime", and abandoning efforts to change it to a more "democratic" one.

    September 20, 2012 at 11:51 am | Reply
  4. matslats

    Wow your bias is palpabe. Are you saying that USAID isn't a front for espionage and political agitation? Are you saying that Russia should tolerate foreign funded political organisations? How would you feel if Iran were using Islamic Relief to funding myriad pro Islamic lobbying organisations in Washington? And that's just the thin end of the wedge. See what's happening in Syria now, with the US and Europe openly funding jihadist insurgents to take down the government.
    Putin is a far more astute politician than any corporate puppet installed in the US for decades.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    The Cold War is back! It had always been the passion of Soviet leaders to seek out scapegoats and enemies for any failure in the country. The US had been scapegoat and enemy No. one for much of the last half a century. Under Putin this tradition is celebrating its comeback.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Golos is partly funded by USAID and its exposure of electoral fraud at last year's parliamentary elections helped spark huge anti-Kremlin street demonstrations. The Kremlin could be seen trying to prevent Golos and other organisations from monitoring the regional and local elections next month.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  6. 100 % ETHIO

    Most Child adopters are using innocent Children as modern Slavery, including raising them without connecting them their Biological family Cultures.

    Sometimes, Childrens are subjected to negative treatments.

    **Jewish adopters are taking revenge against Christians**.

    September 20, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply

    those russians are evil they are helping terrorists IN IRAN AND SYRIA BASHAR AL ASAD, AND HIZBOALLAH. EVIL HELPING EVIL
    WE MUST CUT ALL RELATION WITH THEM , SANCTION THOSE IDIOTS and attack syria and iran now before it is too late.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
    • ragozzi

      Who is "we"? Speak for yourself, silly...

      September 20, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
    • reaper0n3

      Yeah... lets do what the jews want and start world war 3.... Moron. US will not win a war against Russian and it's allies.

      September 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  8. WhatWindsMeUp

    Wrong word `leaving`. The right one `kicked out`. Call spade a spade, OK?

    September 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  9. george thorn

    Interesting posts, :), well one was anyway. USAID is a tax payer funded payoff fund for political favors. Whether it's involved in spying I can't say for sure but I'll bet $ to donuts that less than 50% ever gets to where it's supposed to go. It offers about as good a return on investment as social security. We are as corrupt as any banana republic.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  10. Ferhat Balkan

    Espionage will always be present as long as there's distrust between 2 countries. Whether it's in the form of USAID or undercover infiltrators like the 10 Russian spies who got caught 2 years ago. There's also a huge spike in cyber war between the 2 countries. It makes you wonder if the Cold War really ended in 1991.

    September 20, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  11. 100 %ETHIO

    Come-on! Although, the mainstream Media does not have accesses to the internal agreements between U.S.A and Russia, there are many positive common things bounded us together.
    One example is, Christianity.
    Simply, if America becomes (as it was by founding Fathers), strictly a Christian blessed Country, the bonds between America, Russia, Europe, Africa,..will be so strong.

    Blessedly, we Christians have ONLY ONE HOLLY-BIBLE. Our differences could be easily, reconciled by ONE HOLLY-BIBLE, that we Christians believe.

    We also have many common reconciliation ways. Such as, the Vatican, Priests, Monks, Deacons, Evangelists,....

    Miraculously, if America turns its back to non-Christians, it will be the end to non-Christians. But, America will remain much stronger than ever before.


    September 20, 2012 at 11:50 pm | Reply
  12. USMC Forever

    Being the largest country in the world and producing more oil than any country except Saudi Arabia, why in the world would Russia need foreign aid? It's true that Russia's national economy did mplode in1991 after Boris Yeltsin took office and he himself made a mess of things, Russia should never be that open and trusting to the West as it seeks more and more ways to exploit Russia's natural resources. Besides, Russia now has a growing economy!

    September 21, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  13. Adam Barnett

    This mission trip to Belize with Thirst Missions was the best trip I’ve ever taken.


    September 21, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  14. Bagrat

    We r all like sheeps, we get food from our owners for some job or just free by getting some allowance and think mostly the way that they want from us. It doesn't matter where r u from, all rules by elites and all that we see in Russia or U.S. It's just struggle between rich guys. R there people really think that they can influence on some global things? It's just illusion, cause 5%-8% of word population hold 95% of all word's resources and riches. It's human history, it was so for a centuries. It's hard to change anything, cause that powerful and rich guys never refuse to dominate and rule by sheeps. There is only one way to change it, change human values and get Artificial intelligence As a word government.

    September 29, 2012 at 3:00 am | Reply
  15. James

    This is a move that should not surprise anyone who has studied Russian history. After decades of the cold war, why wouldn’t Russia be skeptical of the United States? Although the relationship between the United States and Russia is better than it was in those times, recent history may show a shift towards greater hostility. The U.S.-led war in Iraq was opposed by Russia. The U.S. has high democratic hopes for the former Soviet Union, and as Vladimir Putin has slithered back into power, questions arise as to the nature and details of Putin’s rule. Amid growing protest in Russia, Putin still seems to be firmly in charge. Russia has seen a thousand years of authoritarian rule, and it will be interesting in the coming decades to see if Russia slides back into an autocratic regime.

    October 23, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Reply

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