- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The United States said Tuesday it is ending the U.S. Agency for International Development’s operations in Russia after a Kremlin demand that the aid organization leave the country, dealing a blow to President Obama’s policy of “resetting” relations between Washington and Moscow.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that Russia sent a letter last week saying it didn’t need Washington’s help anymore. She didn’t cite a political reason for the closure, but President Vladimir Putin has long complained about U.S. democracy and human rights promotion efforts.

The aid agency has worked in Russia since the Soviet Union’s collapse 20 years ago, promoting what it says is “a more open and innovative society and a strengthened partnership between Russia and the United States” and spending some $2.7 billion. It planned $50 million in programs this year.

“We are extremely proud of what USAID has accomplished in Russia over the past two decades,” Ms. Nuland said. “While USAID’s physical presence in Russia will come to an end, we remain committed to supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.”

Ms. Nuland didn’t criticize Russia for its action. But she said the money went to a wide variety of initiatives, such as fighting AIDS and tuberculosis, helping orphans and victims of trafficking, and improving the protection of wildlife and the environment. About 60 percent of annual funds go to governance, human rights and democracy programs.

“It is our hope that Russia will now itself assume full responsibility and take forward all of this work,” she said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

The end of USAID’s Russia work is the latest setback in the U.S.-Russia relationship, which has included bitter disagreements on issues from missile defense to ending Syria’s civil war. That has led to criticism from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and others about the merits of the Obama administration’s touted attempt to patch up relations with the Kremlin. The effort yielded an agreement last year to reduce the U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons arsenals.

The Russian decision is “an insult to the United States and a finger in the eye of the Obama administration, which has consistently trumpeted the alleged success of its so-called ‘reset’ policy toward Moscow,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. He said it was essential to pass a bill under consideration that is named after lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison amid torture allegations nearly three years ago, and would link trade benefits to Russia with sanctions against Russian government officials responsible for human rights violations.

The U.S.-based human rights group Freedom House said Russia’s deadline for USAID to cease activities is Oct. 1, but Ms. Nuland didn’t say when the agency would pull out completely from Russia. It employs 13 Americans in Russia and about 60 local staffers.

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