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Opinion The White House is letting a Russian ultra-nationalist in to the U.S. — despite sanctions

Dmitry Rogozin, who leads the Russian space agency, speaks to the media in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 11. (Yuri Kochetkov/Pool via Reuters)

The White House is planning to issue a temporary sanctions waiver to allow Dmitri Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency and a longtime nationalist firebrand entrusted with some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most delicate foreign policy errands, to visit the United States next year. The announcement was made by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine who, while on a visit to Moscow, expressed his wish to “forge strong working relations” with Rogozin. In addition to meetings at NASA, Bridenstine invited his Russian counterpart to speak to students at his alma mater in Houston. “Rice University is on the same street as the Johnson Space Center, so I think it will all work out,” said the NASA chief in anticipation of the visit.

Placed under U.S. sanctions in 2014 for his role in the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine, Rogozin has long been the most recognizable face of Russian far-right nationalism and has skillfully maneuvered between maintaining his appeal with his ideological base and offering his services to the Kremlin when required. He has been in particular demand in foreign policy, even if giving neo-Nazi salutes and organizing nationalist rallies should not have served as the best calling card with Western interlocutors. Perhaps the choice was intentional. In the time Putin has been in power Rogozin has led the Russian delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, served as the Kremlin’s envoy in talks with the European Union over Kaliningrad and spent four years in Brussels as Russia’s ambassador to NATO. Judging by his steady career rise, his superiors must have been pleased.

Rogozin’s only diplomatic glitch came in 2005, when the Socialist International denied membership to his Rodina (Motherland) party after several of its parliamentarians called on the Russian prosecutor general to ban Jewish organizations in the country. “There is a tradition in Russia not to shake hands with anti-Semites and not to sit around the table with them,” Russia’s Jewish leaders wrote to the Socialist International’s secretariat in London after Rodina submitted its application. “We call on [you] not to lend support to this anti-Semitic organization.”

Domestically, Rogozin was always ready to rally his nationalist base to the Kremlin’s cause. In the parliamentary election of 2003, his hastily created coalition siphoned off votes from opposition groups and led the attacks on liberal parties; during the mass anti-Putin rallies of 2011 and 2012, he appealed to “national patriots and Russian nationalists” to abandon the protests and integrate into Putin’s government. Rogozin led by example, accepting appointment as Putin’s deputy prime minister. Upon taking office, he promised to “eliminate any attempts at corruption with an iron fist.” The strains of government must have weakened his fist, though; a 2016 investigation by Transparency International identified Dmitri Rogozin as the owner of a $7 million apartment in Moscow’s exclusive “Nearer Dacha” neighborhood, named for Joseph Stalin’s nearby country residence.

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For someone who had frequented Europe’s diplomatic residences, personal travel sanctions must have come as a particular humiliation. The European Union, which joined the United States in blacklisting Rogozin over the war in Ukraine, was particularly thorough in enforcing the sanctions; on two separate occasions, in 2014 and 2017, Romania rerouted his plane while in transit between Russia and Moldova to prevent it from entering E.U. airspace. “Wait for our response, bastards,” Rogozin tweeted to the Romanian government after the second incident. (No response ever came.)

Rogozin’s only symbolic victory over Western sanctions came in April 2015, when he made an unannounced one-day trip to Spitsbergen, a Norwegian Arctic coal-mining island of 2,000 people with special residence and commercial rights for Russian citizens. Proudly tweeting his own photos in full Arctic gear, Rogozin accused Norway’s government of “envy” after it protested his unlawful visit.

Dmitri Rogozin’s next trip to the West will not come by sneaking through a back door, but courtesy of an official invitation from the U.S. government. This will not be the first time the White House used its waiver authority to invite sanctioned Kremlin officials; earlier this year, the heads of three Russian state security agencies — including the GRU, whose agents were involved around the same time in a murder mission in Great Britain — flew in for secret talks in Washington. According to U.S. officials, the visit was “authorized and approved according to proper procedure.”

Personal sanctions will work only if governments that operate them actually adhere to their terms. In rare cases, it may be justifiable to use “national security waivers” to temporarily lift sanctions on certain individuals — and these justifications must be provided to the public and to Congress. It is doubtful, however, that inviting a notorious nationalist to lecture at Rice University constitutes reasonable grounds for such action.