Russian authorities are raiding non-governmental organizations to make sure they comply with a law intended to stem foreign meddling in Russian politics, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday.
Activists have criticized the sweeping searches of as many as 2,000 NGOs across the country as an attempt by the Kremlin to intimidate its critics. France and Germany have summoned Russia's ambassadors to explain the searches, while the U.S., Britain and the EU have expressed concern.
Russia's rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, asked Putin about the raids, saying they have been conducted for no apparent reason.
Putin responded that the goal was 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."
Hours before he spoke, the prosecutor general's office said the raids aimed to weed out underground groups and combat money laundering.
A recent law requires all NGOs with foreign funding that engage in vaguely defined political activities to register as "foreign agents." Leading Russian NGOs have denounced the law as impossibly vague.
Although rights activists such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have faced the most pressure, the Russian searches have also affected groups offering French-language courses in Siberia and those promoting bird-watching.
Pavel Chikov, a member of the presidential human rights council, said Russian agencies with no connection to the new law — including the fire, labor and health departments — had joined the checks.
"The prosecutor general's office has become a kind of repressive machine, instead of serving as institution that enforces the law," fellow council member Sergei Krivenko said Thursday.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland slammed what she called a Russian "witch hunt" against non-governmental organizations.
"These inspections appear to be aimed at undermining important civil society activities across the country," Nuland told reporters, adding that the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, has expressed his displeasure to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
Nuland said the laws passed last year by Moscow impose "harsh restrictions on NGO activity in Russia."
"They are chilling the environment for civil society, which is taking Russian democracy in the wrong direction," she added.
Nuland said the U.S. was continuing its support for Russian advocacy groups, using platforms outside of Russia to direct funds to organizations.
Putin, who returned to the presidency in May, has repeatedly accused NGOs of being fronts allowing the U.S. government to interfere in Russia's affairs.
AP writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.