by Timothy J. Colton, Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies, Harvard University, and U.S. Co-Chair of the Working Group.
Tensions over American democracy promotion efforts in Russia go back a long way. They will not disappear after this week’s announcement, although the shift will probably change the field of play a lot.
Most policy insiders on the U.S. side were not surprised by this turn of events, and they probably should not have been. The bilateral agreement undergirding USAID activities in Russia expired in 2010 and desultory negotiations about renewing it had not made progress. The standard indictment by the Russian authorities has been around for years – Russia is a proud and sovereign country, its civil society is maturing and does not need external help, Washington has no monopoly on human rights and democracy, it has promoted “color revolutions” in Eurasia, etcetera. Since the Putin regime was challenged by street protests following last December’s parliamentary election, it has taken the line that these events were consciously instigated by the United States and its allies – a divisive and seemingly simple-minded line that, nonetheless, paid political dividends. The ridiculous law on NGOs declaring themselves “foreign agents” if they accept international funding is of a piece.
But questions do remain about the orchestration and impact of the expulsion. Over the winter, the line Russian officials took with American diplomats and others was that the rhetoric about Gosdep influence over the demonstrators was mere expediency and that it would cool once Vladimir Putin was safely reelected to a third term. Were they being deceitful? Were they in the dark about the government’s actual intentions? Or did Russian policy evolve ad hoc, without any kind of long-term design?
One has to wonder what Putin and his circle actually think about the USAID presence. I would be comforted by evidence that they have continued to act out of political expediency, with an eye to the Russian domestic audience (looking patriotic to conservatives, looking tough and immovable to liberals). However, it is far from clear that getting rid of USAID would make sense if that was the sole objective – better to have the scapegoat on site and available for denunciation than to get rid of it altogether. This raises the depressing possibility that Putin actually believes that mass protest in Russia, which in any case is on the wane, is primarily a phenomenon inspired by foreign governments and their local proxies.
The other striking point for me is the complete indifference of the architects of this decision to its impact on American opinion during the course of a presidential election campaign. Even ironclad sovereignty does not make it in your country’s interest to ignore the domestic politics governing the foreign policies of a negotiating partner, which the U.S. under the Obama administration has been for Putin’s Russia since 2009. Content aside, Russia is sure to pay a significant price for the unwise and unfriendly timing of the announcement.