The United States says it will comply with Russia’s request to end all programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development - or USAID - a request the U.S. describes as “regrettable.” Experts believe that action will hurt Russian non-governmental organizations that deal with democracy and human rights.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says the United States is extremely proud of the work USAID has done in Russia over the past 20 years in such areas as environment and health.
“And with regard to our support for civil society, for democracy, for human rights, for the rule of law, we will continue to work with those Russians in civil society who want to work with us," said Nuland.
Over the years, USAID has helped fund some of the most well-known Russian civil society organizations - such as Golos, Moscow’s only independent vote counting group, and Memorial, one of the country’s leading human rights groups.
David Kramer, president of Freedom House and a former senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, says it is groups like Golos and Memorial who will suffer the most.
“It leaves them standing alone. It’s a very bad blow to them. Some of them may have assumed that something like this was going to happen, and perhaps they have been making plans. But for some of them they are dependent on outside funding without which they might risk going out of business. So I think it means while they are trying to stand up, we’re pulling out. That sends a terrible message, in my view," said Kramer.
Kramer says the demand to shut down USAID’s Russian programs is definitely the work of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“This is the latest step by Putin to crack down on civil society in Russia, following the legislation that would require NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to assume the ‘foreign agent’ label, increased penalties for protesting, re-criminalization of defamation - all of these things - raids on opposition leaders’ homes and arresting their spouses, investigating their families. And so this is now the next step, which is to push out foreign funders such as USAID from Russia," he said.
Marshal Goldman, Russia expert and professor emeritus at Harvard University, agrees.
“If you are operating in Russia and you are singled out by Putin, you have to be very concerned that you are now in the spotlight - and in Russia you never know what is going to happen if you are on a targeted list," said Goldman.
USAID has until October 1 to end its presence in Russia.