Behind Russia's USAID Expulsion

The Kremlin's decision highlights the limits of U.S. influence in Moscow.

Russia’s recent decision to expel the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) clearly will lead to increased tensions between Moscow and Washington. Regardless of the precise diplomatic language that either side used to describe the agency’s “departure,” it’s quite obvious that this was in fact an expulsion demanded by the Kremlin.

USAID was able to operate in Russia even during the remarkably tense and hostile period following the 2008 war with Georgia. The Kremlin’s decision, which has come after a period of general improvement in the bilateral relationship, cannot be easily spun or explained away. Already several commentators have presented an argument to the effect of: “USAID was doing a lousy job anyway, so good riddance.” But one should not conflate the efficiency of USAID’s operations in Russia, or even its mere presence in the country, with justification of the Kremlin’s latest edict.

One can simultaneously acknowledge that USAID projects are, historically speaking, not always particularly well managed and that the Kremlin’s rationale in this particular instance was nakedly political and vengeful in character.

Maybe there was an argument for slowly winding down USAID’s involvement over the next five to ten years. Russia’s GDP per capita, after all, is substantially above the level at which other emerging-market countries such as Turkey and China have become net donors of foreign aid, but there isn’t any plausible rationale for a rapid and wholesale ban on the agency’s activity. The USAID expulsion suggests a worryingly aggressive and ignorant mindset among Russian president Vladimir Putin and his aides and a very uncharacteristic high-risk, low-reward approach to the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, astutely noted that everything in the U.S.-Russia relationship has traditionally been “linked.” An aggressive Russian move in one sphere necessitates an American response in another, seemingly unrelated one. There is thus a very real chance that there will be not only a Cold-War Style tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsion but also a more substantial spillover into other areas, such as visa facilitation or permanent normal trade relations, in which there has been a great deal of progress over the past few years. That would obviously be bad for both Russia and the United States, and the Kremlin has only itself to blame.

Whatever the fallout from the USAID expulsion, it should prompt a reexamination of how U.S.-Russian relations are practiced. The United States and Russia don’t need to have such a comprehensively “linked” relationship in which everything is connected and nothing can be handled on its own merits. Something more akin to the “compartmentalization” (or “selective cooperation” if you want a somewhat more pleasant-sounding phrase), which characterizes Russia’s relationship with Turkey and other rising powers, would be healthier and more productive for both parties. But the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship doesn’t exist in a historical or political vacuum and can’t be reinvented from scratch. It is what it is, and it will require some extraordinarily nimble diplomatic footwork from the State Department to avoid a major blowup.

USAID’s expulsion is a clear example of the limits of Washington’s influence—not only in Russia but in any country that is not positively predisposed towards U.S. foreign policy demands or notions of democratic governance. At a conference in Washington last week on the USAID expulsion and the general course of U.S.-Russia relations, I was struck by the paucity of concrete suggestions about the preferred U.S. response. The consensus was that we should “do something,” yet no one really wanted to specify what that “something” should be. Some said that passing the Magnitsky bill, which has been in the works for more than a year now, ought to suffice, while others said that kicking out a bunch of Russian embassy staff would be a nice start that should be followed up by unspecified “additional measures.”

But however justified Washington might be in sanctioning the Russians, past experience shows that taking these kinds of steps would only further anger them and make them even less positively disposed to supporting U.S. initiatives. Indeed, judging from the past twelve years, it seems that the United States has two possible approaches toward Russia. The first option is an openly antagonistic relationship in which we loudly and persistently support civil society and democracy but get stonewalled on other issues. The alternative is a frosty but businesslike relationship in which we get support on concrete issues related to security and trade but largely eschew domestic criticism. It would be ideal to have both—democracy promotion and robust cooperation—but even if this was possible in the past, it looks less plausible moving forward.

Is this an ideal situation? Certainly not, and it’s truly worrying that the Kremlin is becoming even more irascible and unaccommodating. But considering the U.S. relationship with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, it’s not exactly unprecedented for Washington to hold its nose and do business with unsavory regimes. Should we do so with Russia? There are good-faith arguments to be made for either engagement or isolation. But when making our choice, whatever it is, we should be aware both of the trade-offs inherent in the relationship and of America’s generally limited ability to influence Russian domestic politics.

Mark Adomanis blogs on Russia for Forbes. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAdomanis.

Image: World Economic Forum