WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 Barack 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," 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."
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 candidate Mitt Romney and others about the merits of the Obama administration's much-touted effort to patch up relations with the Kremlin, which 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 Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. 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 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 Nuland didn't say when the agency would pull out completely from Russia. It employs 13 Americans in Russia and about 60 local staffers.
While no new contracting is taking place, Nuland said officials wanted to "wind these programs down responsibly." That includes looking for ways to continue working with Russian nongovernmental organizations to safeguard programs that "a lot of Russians are dependent on," she said.
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. Putin blamed Washington for trying to destabilize Russia and accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for signaling the start of demonstrations.
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.
Closing the USAID office "is an unfriendly move toward the U.S.," said Grigory Melkonyants, the deputy director of Golos, which gets most of its funding from 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."
Putin and his circle have long exploited suspicion of foreign involvement in the country, but he has stepped up the campaign over the last year. Although he returned as president in May, he is under increasing criticism in Russian society and even in the once-submissive parliament.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.