The United States says Russia has decided to close a decades-old American cultural center operating in Moscow under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy, a move it said was damaging to the two countries' already frayed ties.
U.S. Ambassador John Tefft said in a September 16 statement that the embassy "deeply regrets the Russian government's unilateral decision" to close the embassy's American Center, which opened at the All-Russia State Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow in 1993.
"The library recently terminated the formal agreement for embassy support of the center, informed us of its intention to replace the American director of the center, and its intent to take full control of all of the center's activities," Tefft said.
The move comes almost a year after Russia canceled its participation in a respected program that sends high-school students from former Soviet republics to study in the United States amid the West's standoff with Moscow over the Ukraine conflict.
"These latest unilateral steps further call into question the Russian government's commitment to maintaining people-to-people ties between the Russian and American people, which continued even during the Cold War and other complicated moments in our countries' long history," Tefft said.
Tefft added that the center had "built deep and strong connections between the people and cultures of Russia and the United States."
Since its opening 22 years ago, the center has promoted American culture with a library of English-language literature and by staging regular events featuring well-known U.S. political, athletic, and cultural figures.
Vadim Duda, director of the Library of Foreign Literature, told Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency that the library was willing keep the center running but without U.S. government financing.
"We are very happy that our positions regarding cultural cooperation essentially coincide," Duda was quoted as saying. "We are prepared to keep the entire staff, the entire space occupied by the center, and all of the programs. But we must change our cooperation so that it corresponds with the demands of Russian law."
Duda did not specify which Russian laws had caused the complications.
But in 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin enacted a law requiring any organization in Russia to register as a "foreign agent" if it receives foreign funding and is involved in activities deemed by Russian authorities as political in nature.
Putin and his government have long bristled at what they consider Western interference in Russia's domestic politics.
Critics of the law say it is aimed at stigmatizing government critics with a label echoing Cold War-era suspicions and is part of a growing crackdown on civil society that Putin launched upon his return to the presidency after four years as prime minister.
In May 2015, Putin signed a new "undesirables" law that empowers the government to ban foreign and international organizations deemed a threat to Russia.
Duda was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying that he hoped the American Center will not become a political bargaining chip and that the Library of Foreign Literature is willing to "retain the independence of the center's activities" if the financing issue can be resolved.
With reporting by RIA Novosti