The move suggested that the fear of external influence is a deeper issue and that Putin is trying to recalibrate ties.
MOSCOW - It began as an urgent effort to stave off political chaos, build basic institutions, and even prevent starvation in the anxiety-ridden aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union.
Over the next 20 years, through the United States Agency for International Development, U.S. taxpayers would come to spend nearly $3 billion on programs touching nearly every facet of society in the former communist state -- fighting the spread of tuberculosis and HIV, developing judicial systems and training lawyers and judges, promoting child welfare, job readiness, youth engagement, human rights and democracy, even helping modernize the utility system.
The decision by the Kremlin this month to terminate all the agency's programs here, amid a swirl of accusations of meddling in Russia's internal affairs, has stunned aid workers, infuriated U.S. diplomats and left many nonprofit groups on the brink of collapse.
With President Vladmir Putin facing the biggest political challenges since his rise to power 12 years ago, including a series of big street demonstrations in Moscow, the Kremlin has been moving aggressively to clamp down on dissent.
When Putin last winter accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of sending "a signal" to opposition groups in Russia to take to the streets, many U.S. officials dismissed it as election-year rhetoric, aimed at propping up his campaign. But the move to restrict long-established foreign aid programs, including many with no connection to politics, suggests that the fear of external influence is a deeper issue, and that an effort by Putin to recalibrate his relationship with the United States is under way.
The Kremlin's ire seems largely directed at two groups: Golos, the country's only independent election monitoring organization, which helped expose fraud in parliamentary elections last December that favored the ruling party; and Transparency International, an anticorruption group, which for a while seemed to have a good working relationship with former President Dmitry Medvedev.
Russian officials insist that the United States should not have been surprised by their decision. "We have long warned the U.S. side that we are not satisfied with some aspects of USAID, in particular political aspects," said Aleksei Pushkov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Duma, the lower house of parliament. "In my opinion this story is a couple of years old."
U.S. officials have said they are working to find ways around the restrictions, including the possibility of endowing a private foundation set up within Russia under Russian law.