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U.S.-Russia war of words ramps up after NGO raids

The United States and Russia are engaged in a new diplomatic war of words following Russian government raids on several international NGOs this week — and the battle is set to escalate. Following this week’s raids of dozens of international organizations by the Russian police, several countries have condemned the actions of President Vladimir Putin‘s ...

BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images
BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images
BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images

The United States and Russia are engaged in a new diplomatic war of words following Russian government raids on several international NGOs this week -- and the battle is set to escalate.

Following this week's raids of dozens of international organizations by the Russian police, several countries have condemned the actions of President Vladimir Putin's government as dangerous assault on civil society and another step backwards in Russia's path toward open and democratic governance. Harsh statements of condemnation have come from the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the top levels of the German government, the French Foreign Ministry, and numerous international organizations.

The United States and Russia are engaged in a new diplomatic war of words following Russian government raids on several international NGOs this week — and the battle is set to escalate.

Following this week’s raids of dozens of international organizations by the Russian police, several countries have condemned the actions of President Vladimir Putin‘s government as dangerous assault on civil society and another step backwards in Russia’s path toward open and democratic governance. Harsh statements of condemnation have come from the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the top levels of the German government, the French Foreign Ministry, and numerous international organizations.

The State Department entered the fray on Thursdayaccusing the Russian government of conducting a "witch hunt" as it seeks to implement a new law placing new restrictions on NGOs and what the Russians call "foreign agents" on their soil.

"The sheer scope of these inspections now — which are now, as I said, targeting not just NGOs who are subject to the changes under Russian law but also targeting civil organizations that are not subject to those laws, like religious organizations, educational organizations — really gives us concern that this is some kind of a witch hunt," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "We think that these laws are extremely restrictive, that they are chilling the environment for civil society, which is taking Russian democracy in the wrong direction."

The offices of several U.S. NGOs were raided in recent days, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul has raised American concerns about the raids with several Russian officials and met on March 26 with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman also placed a call to her Russian counterpart on the issue.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday defending the raids as "a common practice in Russia and in other countries."

Rachel Debner, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable that the raids are not at all a common practice in Russia or anywhere else for that matter.

"This is wave of inspections the scale of which is utterly unprecedented in Russian contemporary history. In the past 20 years there’s been nothing like it," she said. "Putin has made clear that he sees the whole idea of the internal monitoring of a country’s human rights record by foreigners as an assault on Russian sovereignty, which contradicts decades of how the human rights infrastructure has been functioning. The question now is whether the international community is going to let Putin shift the terms on which human rights accountability is based."

The NGO raids are the latest in a series of similar moves by the Russian government, including Moscow’s unilateral withdrawal from the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction initiative, its expulsion of USAID from Russia, and its new ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will travel to Russia next month, but that trip is expected to focus heavily on the administration’s push to entice Russian into a new round of negotiations over further reductions in nuclear weapons arsenals.

Meanwhile, the current tensions with Russia are expected to heighten in mid-April, when the State Department is required to release its list of Russian human rights violators in accordance with the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability and Rule of Law Act of 2012, which seeks to name and shame Russian officials who are guilty of human rights violations and subject them to visa bans and assets freezes. The list is due April 13.

"In some ways, we’re seeing retaliation for something the U.S. hasn’t done yet," one human rights official said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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