USAID 'countering Kremlin' framework is not about Russia, officials say

A vessel sails along the Moskva River near the Bolshoi Kamenny Bridge, with the Kremlin seen in the background, in central Moscow, Russia. Photo by: REUTERS / Sergei Karpukhin

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Agency for International Development’s new “Countering Malign Kremlin Influence” framework should not be seen as an attempt to divide countries between the United States and Russia, according to agency officials.

“This is not about giving countries that we’re helping with our assistance a choice of whether they need to go with Russia, or the United States, or the European Union. What we’re saying is, we want to give the countries that we’re working with the ability to make their own choices,” said Brock Bierman, USAID assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia.

USAID released the framework, also known as CMKI, on July 4, on the sidelines of the G-7 development ministerial in Paris. The framework, which focuses on countries where Russia has exerted influence — and where USAID also works — includes four main objectives, summarized in a three-page document: counter efforts to undermine democratic institutions and the rule of law; resist the manipulation of information; reduce energy vulnerabilities; and reduce economic vulnerabilities.

“CMKI responds to authoritarian challenges by increasing the economic and democratic resilience of targeted countries, and working to mitigate the effects of Kremlin soft power aggression upon a range of institutions,” said USAID Administrator Mark Green, announcing the new framework in Paris.

“We offer tools to help replace counterproductive restrictions on private enterprise and free market operations, tackle problems of corruption and generally support efforts to increase integration with Western economies. Our assistance will include working with individual states to create effective, pro-growth, legal and regulatory frameworks, and assisting them in joining well-functioning local and regional energy markets,” Green said.

USAID has highlighted some of the work it is already doing as examples of what might fall under the CMKI framework. In Georgia — where protests against Russian influence have led to Moscow cutting off flights to the country — the agency has supported an effort to use crowdsourcing to identify “anti-Western disinformation,” Green said. In Ukraine, USAID has provided $2.7 million in “cybersecurity equipment and training for the Central Election Commission to support free and fair elections,” according to the framework document.

Many of the activities that fall under the CMKI resemble things USAID has been doing for quite a while, according to Sarah Mendelson, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College in Washington, D.C. and a former USAID deputy assistant administrator, who led the agency’s democracy, rights, and governance work during the Obama administration.

Asked whether labeling these activities as part of an effort to “counter” a foreign adversary might risk overly-politicizing them, Mendelson said, “We hurt ourselves if we don’t actually recognize and name what it is the Kremlin is doing. In the case of the U.S., as [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller wrote in his report, [Russian interference] is sweeping and systematic.”

The Russian government, which has repeatedly brushed off accusations that it meddles in foreign politics and elections, was quick to respond to the launch of the USAID framework, calling it “a tool of ideological warfare and brainwashing.”

“The desire to sow fear of our country and to frighten the world with the fake ‘Russian interference’ belies the thinly veiled intent to bend them to US influence and breed anti-Russia sentiments including, among other things, in order to force Europe to buy expensive American LNG [liquified natural gas],” Russia’s foreign ministry wrote in a July 6 statement.

The Russian government’s attempt to paint USAID’s democracy and governance programs with the same brush of “interference” and “influence” does not hold up to an informed assessment of the facts, according to Mendelson.

“The whataboutisms only really work if people don’t understand either the history or the context of what’s actually going on. If people get lazy and say, ‘oh, well, isn’t this what [the National Democratic Institute], or Internews, or [the International Republican Institute] does?’ No, it’s not what they do,” she said.

First, these are 501(c)3 organizations that operate independently of the U.S. government, whereas the Russian government exerts direct control over many of the organizations that spread anti-Western messages among Russia’s neighboring countries.

Second, the effort to support civil society and democratic institutions is “not an American project,” Mendelson said. “This is one enshrined in the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights], and one that has grown over the decades to involve lots and lots of other countries, local actors. This is a big movement,” she said.

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According to USAID’s Bierman, CMKI is not about forcing a choice between Russia and the West, but about aligning American assistance with democracy, in the face of ascendant authoritarianism. That goal is in line with Green’s broader vision for assisting countries along a “journey to self-reliance,” a journey which the Kremlin, according to Bierman, is seeking to undermine by making countries “reliant.”

That is why the name of the USAID framework has shifted during the course of its development.

USAID officials previously spoke about “countering Russian aggression,” and U.S. lawmakers introduced a “Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act” in congress. Bierman said USAID held discussions about how to create a framework that is understood to be about “authoritarianism versus independence,” not about Russia versus the U.S.

“I think Russians want the same things we want,” he said.

One way to shield USAID from the Russian government’s insinuation that it is an agent of American imperialism would be to broaden the coalition for supporting independent democracies, both inside and outside the U.S. government, according to Mendelson.

“I would want to see this as part of a whole of government response, if not whole of government, whole of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, so that it’s not just [USAID] that’s doing this,” she said.

She added that the U.S. government and its partners could elevate voices from the region, “to be very clear and counter what’s going on.”

Still, for Mendelson, it is difficult to reconcile USAID’s new framework with a massive elephant in the room: U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to cast doubt on the Russian interference narrative, including by appearing to side with Vladimir Putin when faced with the evidence of Russian meddling.

“This is, on the face of it, I would say a solid document, but the President of this country, the head of this administration, questions quite clearly whether or not this is even a thing,” Mendelson said.

“Certainly in the way he’s talked about the Mueller investigation, the way he cozies up to Vladimir Putin and other autocrats — it’s very disconcerting in U.S. policy to have the president disconnected from the rest of the administration,” she said.

About the author

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.