MOSCOW - The U.S. Agency for International Development ceased operations in Russia today after being expelled last month, a move widely seen as part of the Kremlin's effort to intimidate and discredit the country's opposition.
Russia accused USAID of meddling in the country's internal affairs, and specifically its elections.
The Obama administration loudly protested the move, which will cut millions of dollars in critical funding for a number of Russian non-governmental organizations. Among those affected is Golos, the country's only independent election monitor. Those groups were already under fire due to a new law requiring any organization that receives funding from abroad to declare themselves a foreign agent, a term tinged with hints of espionage.
The moves comes as the Kremlin appears increasingly impatient with an unprecedented protest movement that has called on President Vladimir Putin to go.
U.S. officials, however, were quick to point to USAID's other contributions in Russia, including efforts to combat HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, as well as to respond to natural disasters.
In a lengthy post this afternoon on his Live Journal blog, the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow Michael McFaul vigorously defended USAID's record over two decades in Russia.
"USAID programs, always developed in cooperation with Russian partners, have contributed to improving public health and combating infectious diseases, addressing child welfare issues, protecting the environment, developing a stronger civil society, and modernizing the economy," he wrote.
U.S. officials also noted that several unnamed members of the ruling United Russia party, which has spearheaded recent efforts to restrict freedoms here, attended training sessions funded by USAID.
"Representatives of the United Russia party and their affiliates regularly participate," confirmed Cathy Gest, a spokeswoman for the National Democratic Institute which conducted the sessions for USAID, in an email last week. United Russia officials denied the claims. Gest declined to specify which officials had attended which programs and when.
USAID began operating in Russia in 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then it has reportedly spent a total of $2.6 billion on grants.
A fact sheet about the agency's work in Russia posted on the U.S. Embassy's website last month, however, noted that USAID's mission in Russia had evolved in recent years.
"As Russia has grown into a middle income country, the nature of USAID's work has evolved beyond primarily providing technical assistance with a large focus on collaboration. By 2012, the majority of USAID's engagement revolved around the promotion of an open and innovative society in Russia," it said.