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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Moscow Thursday, for two days of talks that will be mainly devoted to negotiations on bilateral nuclear arms reductions and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (both Russia and the U.S. are members of the Middle East Quartet).
But the visit comes in the wider context of the Russia-U.S. "reset" in relations. Things did not go well under former president George W. Bush — Russia felt ignored and sidelined (someone forgot to inform Moscow that Bush treated all countries that way). The Obama administration maintains that the reset button has now been pressed. But that's not gone smoothly either. Hoping to woo Moscow into cooperation on things like Iran sanctions, it first abandoned plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe before recently announcing it would build one anyway, just not in the original countries that irked Moscow so much.
And now come rampant rumors that Russia is looking to shut down the Moscow office of USAID, the State Department's development agency. I first heard the rumor out of D.C., and have since had it confirmed with three sources here in Moscow. Apparently, Russia considers itself a developed country and has no need for U.S. government aid (the program devotes its activities mainly to things like supporting health NGOs). Also, there remains suspicion here toward any U.S. government activities, lest they provide cover for covert anti-Kremlin actions. That's a suspicion that extends to Russian and foreign NGOs too, and under then-President Vladimir Putin, Russia adopted a restrictive law curtailing the number of NGOs in the country and the activities of those allowed to register. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on the rumor. Under a U.S.-Russia government agreement, the Russians can close USAID unilaterally, giving the group 90 days to shut down operations.
That's not a nice backdrop to Clinton's visit. As Time's Simon Shuster put it in this story on the trip, "Obama's dream of wiping the slate clean and seeking real pragmatic ties with Russia has begun to look naive."