By bschreckinger@politico.com (Ben Schreckinger)

The Trump administration has indefinitely postponed a proposed visit by a sanctioned Russian official to the U.S., a spokeswoman for NASA said on Friday.

The indefinite postponement could throw a wrench in U.S.-Russia space cooperation and represents a setback for Vladimir Putin’s efforts to undermine U.S. sanctions.

The proposed visit, which was supposed to have taken place some time early this year, faced mounting backlash this week from Senate Democrats who threatened congressional action to block it in response to a Tuesday POLITICO report about plans for the visit.

The invitation from NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine to his Russian counterpart, ultranationalist Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, to visit Houston and speak at Rice University also prompted protests from gay rights groups this week on account of Rogozin’s history of homophobic rhetoric.

Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister who has also gained notoriety for racist and harshly anti-American rhetoric, was sanctioned in 2014 for his role in the Crimea annexation.

Undermining Western sanctions, which have hamstrung Russia’s economy and irritated its rulers, is among Putin’s top priorities. The U.S. currently depends on Russian cooperation for parts of its space program, and the appointment of Rogozin to head Russia’s space agency earlier this year has presented a conundrum for U.S. sanctions enforcement, as evidenced by NASA’s invitation and the controversy it has created.

On Thursday, Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, the ranking member on the subcommittee that oversees NASA’s funding, and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking member on the foreign relations committee, threatened to block the visit by invoking a 2017 law that gives Congress greater oversight powers over the executive branch’s handling of Russian sanctions.

A day later, NASA put the brakes on its plans. “NASA has informed the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, that the proposed visit of Roscosmos Director General, Dr. Dimitry Rogozin, currently planned for February 2019 will need to be postponed,” said NASA spokeswoman Megan Powers in a statement. “A new date for the visit has not been identified.”

Powers did not immediately respond to a question about why NASA had postponed the visit.

A NASA official said that the original invitation, which Bridenstine issued to Rogozin in October during a meeting in Kazakhstan hosted by Roscosmos, was made in coordination with other relevant agencies and that the Treasury Department, which oversees most aspects of sanctions enforcement, had cleared NASA’s engagement with Rogozin last June.

A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department did not immediately confirm NASA’s account of events.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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