Russia says it is expelling the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from the country following what it says were attempts by the mission to influence Russian politics and elections.
On September 19, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused USAID of seeking to "influence political processes, including elections of various types, and institutions of civil society through the distribution of grants."
The ministry said it was also worried by the mission's work in the volatile North Caucasus, where Moscow is fighting an Islamist insurgency.
In separate comments, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said Russia's civil society did not require "outside leadership."
"We are talking about attempts, through the distribution of grants, to influence political processes, including elections at various levels, and institutions of civil society," he said. "Russian civil society is quite mature now and it does not require outside leadership."
Washington announced on September 18
that Moscow had ordered the closure of USAID.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington was proud of what USAID had accomplished in the country in the past 20 years. She called the decision "regrettable" but said the U.S. accepts the closure as Russia's "sovereign decision."
Nuland said Washington "completely reject[s] the notion that our support for civil society, democracy, human rights in any way interferes with elections whether in Russia or anywhere else in the world."
Nuland maintained that the mission would nonetheless continue working with Russian nongovernmental groups and denied that USAID meddled in Russian politics.
"While our USAID physical presence in Russia is going to end, we remain committed to supporting democracy, human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia," she said.
"We will continue to work with those Russians in civil society who want to work with us. We do that in many parts of the world where we don't have [USAID] missions and we are looking now at precisely how we'll work this through, but we are committed to stay on the side of those who want to see a more democratic, more just Russia."
Russian Central Election Commission member Maya Grishina said USAID's departure would not jeopardize the quality of Russian elections.
She said independent election monitoring was "guaranteed by Russian law" and would continue.
But the independent election monitoring group Golos, which receives funding from USAID, said the mission's withdrawal was "a very hard blow" that threatened the group's projects.
Golos director Lilia Shibanova said she believed the decision not to renew USAID's mandate was partly connected with the Kremlin's desire to control election monitoring.
Critics say it is part of a clampdown on dissent backed by President Vladimir Putin, who returned to the Kremlin in May for a third presidential term following an election denounced by the opposition as flawed.
Russian authorities have taken a tougher stance against the opposition and civil society in recent months, including moves to tighten controls on the Internet and raise fines for protesters.
USAID has been in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, spending more than $2.6 billion on programs intended to combat disease, protect the environment, strengthen civil society, and modernize the economy.
USAID has been asked to halt its operations in Russia by October 1.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and ITAR-TASS