Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pictured at a bilateral nuclear security meeting in Seoul, in March. Medvedev is now Russia's prime minister.
Russia accused the United States on Wednesday of using its aid mission in Moscow to try to influence Russian politics and the outcome of elections, a day after Washington announced Moscow had ordered the mission's closure.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, has spent more than $2.7 billion in the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday as she announced the closure, adding that it had planned to spend $50 million this year.
In a statement Wednesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Moscow had serious questions over the operations of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Russia's regions, especially in the North Caucasus where Russia is fighting a persistent Islamist insurgency.
"It's about attempts to influence political processes, including elections of various types, and institutions of civil society though the distribution of grants," the statement said, according to Reuters.
On Tuesday, Nuland said that while USAID would leave Russia “we remain committed to supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia, and we look forward to continuing our close cooperation with Russian non-governmental organizations.”
She added that USAID had worked over the years with the Russian government to “fight AIDS there, fight tuberculosis, help orphans, help the disabled, combat trafficking, support Russian programs in the environmental area, wildlife protection.”
“So it is our hope that Russia will now, itself, assume full responsibility and take forward all of this work that we were proud to do together so that the Russian people continue to have the benefit,” she said.
Asked if the Russian government had expressed “specific points of dissatisfaction with USAID’s work” or had simply said “We’re rich enough, we don’t need it?”, Nuland said she would let the Russians “characterize their motivations.” But she added that “I would say it tends to trend toward the latter, their sense that they don’t need this anymore.”
USAID's ordered departure comes amid a broader crackdown on Russian civil society groups after fraud-tainted parliamentary election last year prompted massive anti-government protests.
President Vladimir Putin blamed Washington for trying to destabilize Russia and accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for signaling the start of demonstrations.
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now at the Brookings Institution think tank, told Reuters that he believed the decision on USAID reflected some reluctance by the Russian government to see foreign support for pro-democracy efforts in the country.
Members of the band Pussy Riot, arrested in February after storming a Moscow cathedral, were sentenced to two years in jail Friday. Critics say the arrest was Putin's personal revenge, raising questions about justice in Russia. NBC's Duncan Golestani reports.
"They see AID's efforts in Russia as being a prime funder of the NGOs that are concerned about their elections and concerned about the regression of democracy in Russia," Pifer said.
He said the Russian government may also be "trying to make it more difficult" for the outside world to support pro-democracy NGOs in Russia.
Russia a 'great power'
Matthew Rojansky, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Reuters that Russian authorities "have made clear for the better part of a decade that they see Russia as a great power and a provider of assistance, not a recipient."
"Add to that tension over the pre- and post-election protests, which the Kremlin alleges were orchestrated by U.S.-funded NGOs (non-governmental organizations), plus the deep disagreement over U.S. democracy-promotion activities in the Middle East, and you can see why Russia may have taken this decision now," he added.
NGOs receiving foreign funding and engaging in political activity must now register as "foreign agents," which is likely to undermine their credibility among Russians.
Another law sharply increases the punishment for taking part in an unauthorized protest rallies. State television has denounced the country's only independent election-monitoring body, Golos.
Grigory Melkonyants, the deputy director of Golos, which gets most of its funding from the U.S., said closing the USAID office "is an unfriendly move toward the U.S.”
He criticized the Kremlin's "paranoia and nervousness" and "inability to understand the reasons behind serious public discontent. They are looking elsewhere for culprits and think it's rooted in the American funding."
Supporters of the jailed girl punk band "Pussy Riot" stage a flash mob on the steps of the same cathedral in Moscow where the band trio was arrested in February. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.
"The Russian government's decision to end all USAID activities in the country is an insult to the United States and a finger in the eye of the Obama Administration," Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in a statement.
"There should be no confusion as to why this decision was made: an increasingly autocratic government in Russia wants to limit the ability of its own citizens to freely and willingly work with American partners on the promotion of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law in Russia," he added.
NBC News' Ian Johnston and Reuters contributed to this report.
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