Moscow Human Rights Watch Crackdown Shows Deteriorating U.S.-Russia Relations

When Russian officials searched the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch on Wednesday, March 27, it made headlines around the world. International observers decried the raid as the culmination of repressive practices implemented since Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin returned to power last May. However, it also shows how the U.S.-Russia relationship has been deteriorating over the same period.

The search of the Human Rights Watch office was conducted just days after a similar search at the Transparency International and Amnesty International offices in Moscow. According to a statement by Amnesty International on March 22, over thirty NGOs have been searched so far across the country, and Russian officials plan to inspect 30-100 organizations per region. The primary targets appear to be human rights organizations but charities, churches and even a language school have also been searched.

Putin justified the raids by saying that the government needed to "check whether the groups' activities conform with their declared goals and whether they are abiding by the Russian law that bans foreign funding of political activities." The Russian Parliament passed that law last summer amid international criticism.

Human rights advocates have criticized the recent raids as a crackdown on civil society.

Russia’s diplomatic relations have suffered as German and French officials have summoned Russia’s ambassadors, and the E.U. and Britain criticized Russia’s actions. On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland characterized the raids as a "witch hunt." 

The recent raids on human rights organizations come as no surprise. Since Putin returned to office last May, he has led the passage of numerous laws restricting on freedom of assembly and speech critical of the government.

The "foreign agent" law, passed last July, requires NGOs engaged in "political activities" that receive foreign funding to identify themselves as "foreign agents." The law defines "political activities" broadly and primarily appears to target advocacy and human rights work.

The law affects both international organizations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch as well as local human rights organizations that receive some level of funding from abroad such as the election-monitoring agency Golos.

Last fall, Russia asked UNICEF and USAID to cease operations in the country, accusing the latter of improperly interfering in Russia’s elections process.

Russia has expressed concern about U.S. interference in its political process since late 2011. After the parliamentary elections in December 2011, thousands of Russians took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest alleged election fraud favoring Putin’s party, United Russia. Putin accused the now-former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of inciting the protests through collaboration with opposition activists.

While it seems unlikely that such a conspiracy existed, it is important to understand Putin’s general concern. From his perspective, the United States funded the election watchdogs that documented the election fraud allegations that sparked the protest. It also funded or cultivated some of the civil society organizations involved in the protests.

Now, that does not mean that the United States necessarily did anything wrong. Supporting civil society is a healthy part of democracy. But from Russia’s perspective, these protests signified instability sown by foreign interference.

Since then, the U.S. and Russia have been stuck in a vicious cycle of deteriorating relations. U.S. criticism of Russia’s actions tends to lead to Russia further vilifying the U.S.

For example, when State Department spokesperson Nuland responded to the raids in Russia, she also said that "we continue to support those in Russia who are seeking to strengthen civil society in their country," but declined to identify them so that she did not "endanger the programs and the receiving organizations." This likely confirms Moscow’s suspicions that the U.S. is continuing to fund programs that Russia would not approve of and gives them justification for future raids.

This is not to criticize Ms. Nuland or any other American diplomat. The U.S. is in a difficult position where the more they criticize Russian actions, the more the Russian government becomes concerned about foreign influence undermining their power. The U.S. must find a way to assuage Putin’s concerns about U.S. interference and rebuild trust between the two countries in order to break the current cycle of accusations.