This week it was officially disclosed in Moscow and Washington that during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok earlier this month Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his United States counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that the foreign aid agency USAID must curtail its operations and leave Russia by October 1. According to Russian diplomatic sources, last June, Lavrov warned Clinton that Moscow wanted USAID out, while the official note of eviction was handed to the US Ambassador in Moscow Michael McFaul by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on September 12. It has been reported in Moscow that Clinton wrote a letter to Lavrov, asking to allow USAID to continue its work in Moscow until next May, promising the aid agency will gradually wind down its existing programs and will not engage in signing new aid grant contracts. But Russian government sources told journalists they want USAID out immediately (Kommersant, September 20).
In an official statement, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused USAID of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs and “attempting to influence the outcome of elections by distributing aid grants.” According to the statement, Russia does not need foreign aid or “foreign guidance” of its civil society (www.mid.ru, September 19). President Vladimir Putin expressed through his press service full support for the expulsion of USAID (Vedomosti, September 20).
USAID has given aid money to the election monitoring group Golos, which helped expose massive vote rigging by the Russian authorities during parliamentary elections last December (see EDM, December 1, 2011). The electoral fraud has given the ruling pro-Kremlin United Russia party a majority in the Duma, though in fact it had lost the election. The exposed fraud triggered massive anti-Putin pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow that are seen in the Kremlin as a fifth column of an international conspiracy, led by the US State Department, plotting regime change in Russia. Using the majority in the State Duma gained through fraud, United Russia and the Kremlin have been hurriedly adopting legislation to further suppress the Russian opposition and officially brand human rights groups as foreign agents (see EDM, December 13, 2011; June 8).
Ousting USAID seems to be a logical move by the Putin regime, since this will surely undermine the work of Russian human rights organizations the Kremlin sees as its enemies. In Russia there is no economic incentive to make charitable donations since they do not provide tax exemptions, while the Russian rich are ordered by authorities to donate only to state-approved organizations. Billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s wealthiest man in 2004, was arrested in 2003 and is still behind bars serving a 14-year sentence. His wealth was confiscated, allegedly for tax fraud, but in fact for donating to opposition parties. Another billionaire, Alexander Lebedev, says his business interests have been attacked because he donates money to the opposition and does not “recommend anyone to follow [his] example” (Kommersant, September 20).
USAID has been active in Russia since 1992 and has distributed some $2.7 billion, helping human-rights groups in documenting election fraud and human rights abuses, supporting AIDS education, treatment of tuberculosis and improvement of infrastructure programs. The State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, lamented the ouster of USAID from Russia, while at the same time declaring the policy of a “reset” of relations with Russia, begun by President Barack Obama in 2009, a success that will be continued—an announcement met with satisfaction in Moscow (RIA Novosti, September 19). In the run-up to the November elections, the Obama administration seems to be ready to accept any abuse or insult by the Putin regime in an attempt to continue the pretence that the failed policy of the reset is “a success.” Such appeasement is not only morally wrong—it incites Putin to be increasingly aggressive in foreign and internal policies.
This week, the strategic Kavkaz-2012 (“Caucasus-2012”) war games began in the North Caucasus, planned to last until September 23. On September 17, Putin visited a specially choreographed exercise at the military training ground Rayevsky near the port city of Novorossiysk. Russian troops simulated an encounter with a US Marine expeditionary force that was presumed to have landed on the Russian Black Sea coast. The simulated Marine force pressed deep into Russia with armor and air support to possibly take over the natural gas and oil export terminals in the region—or maybe one of Putin’s lavish palace residences. The Russian military used tanks, guns, missiles, jets, bombs, helicopters and anti-aircraft missiles to successfully decimate the invaders. Putin announced he was impressed, personally handed out medals to the troops that repulsed the presumed Marine invasion and called on the Russian military “to keep its powder dry.” In a transparent reference to the United States, Putin declared “the use of military force is increasing in international relations,” and the Russian military must be ready “to defend national interests” (RIA Novosti, September 17).
The Russian authorities have refused to allow foreign observers to oversee Kavkaz-2012. NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has publicly called for more transparency and complained that the Western Alliance was not provided by Russia with reliable information about “the purpose of the exercise, where does it take place, how is it conducted?” (www.euronews.com/2012/09/12/nato-chief-talks-to-euronews-on-911-anniversary). Moscow has dismissed the complaint as untrue, and several Moscow-based military attachés, including one from the US Embassy, were invited to visit the Rayevsky training ground together with Putin and his press corps (Kommerasnt, September 17, 18). However, a US diplomat later told Jamestown the military attachés were not provided with any detailed information about the exercise or what was actually happening on September 17 near Novorossiysk and were sent back to Moscow the same day. Kavkaz-2012 is continuing on land, air and sea in the North Caucasus, the Black Sea and the Caspian without any observers and under an almost total news blackout. Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze believes the Kavkaz-2012 exercise “may threaten the stability and security of not only Georgia, but the entire region.” Vashadze recalled that the similar, “though smaller in size,” military exercise Kavkaz-2008 in July 2008 was a precursor to a war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 (www.newsgeorgia.ru/politics/20120917/215215058.html).