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Professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies Mitchell Orenstein was banned from entering Russian territory, according to a March 14 press release (Photo from Penn Arts & Sciences).

After the Russian government banned several Penn affiliates from entering its territory, The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with two sanctioned Penn academics about how the ban connects to their work on Russian affairs. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation released a list of 227 sanctioned U.S. citizens on March 14, including professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies Mitchell Orenstein and five Penn alumni. Following the announcement, the DP spoke with Orenstein and Benjamin Schmitt — a senior fellow at Penn’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, who was sanctioned in 2022 — about the reasoning for and implications of the sanction.

According to the Russian press release, the ban applies to individuals engaged in “anti-Russia” policy and undertakings. The list included academics, members of the United States executive branch, the business community, and the media industry.

Orenstein, who has written extensively on political economy in Central and Eastern Europe, described the Ministry’s justification for the list as a “blanket characterization” of academics in his field. 

He said that he may have been added to the list for his 2019 book “The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War,” which analyzed Russia’s strategy of competing for influence in European countries and political processes in the West. According to Orenstein, the book initially received criticism for being overly harsh on Russia. He said that the criticism largely vanished after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

Orenstein said that a way of thinking about the sanction was as targeting perspectives on Russia that were “too accurate.” 

“Maybe they were concerned about just somebody actually putting out a more realistic interpretation of what they're doing,” he said. “They want people to be confused about their intentions, to always be wondering what's going on.” 

Orenstein said that the sanction would have little practical impact on his work since he has been cautious about traveling to Russia since 2014. In addition, his current foreign policy research does not require working directly in Russia, since it focuses on how the country’s expansionary efforts are affecting adjacent countries such as Ukraine and Belarus. 

Orenstein’s next research project will analyze how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is changing the policy and institutions of the European Union. He added that — while the Foreign Ministry may be seeking to negatively impact academics’ credibility by limiting their ability to travel to Russia — the sanction can have the opposite effect of legitimizing the work of sanctioned individuals. 

“It's basically a badge of honor because you've been noticed by Russia and recognized for your perspective,” he said. 

This is not the first time a Penn community member has been banned from Russia. Schmitt was sanctioned in 2022 on a list of 25 U.S. citizens including Jill Biden, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and former United States Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor David Kramer. 

Similar to Orenstein, Schmitt described the designation as an “honor” indicating that a listed individual is calling attention to Russia’s malign activities. 

Schmitt received a Ph.D. in experimental physics from Penn in 2018, after which he worked as European Energy Security Advisor to the United States Department of State. In that role, he supported U.S. policy to strengthen security objectives in Eastern Europe and opposed the Russia-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. 

In June 2022, Schmitt testified before Congress on the need to increase U.S. sanctions against Russia. Two weeks later, he said that he woke up to messages congratulating him on being sanctioned. Schmitt called the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ reasoning for the sanctions, which cited Russophobic policies, “lazy” and “absurd.” 

“For a malign regime that relies on disinformation, it’s part and parcel to what they do,” he said. “The laziness is in the lack of rigorous sanctions justification.”

In contrast, he said that the Office of Foreign Assets Control — the U.S. entity that administers sanctions — uses a high evidentiary bar for selecting individuals from regimes that have engaged in human rights abuses or other threats to security. 

Schmitt added that he has no plans to visit Russia until it installs a democratic, liberalized regime in alignment with international norms. 

“Not being able to visit about 3.35 percent of Earth’s surface is a small price to pay, especially in astronomical terms, to support those in Ukraine who are fighting for the very democratic norms and principles of sovereignty that we hold dear,” he said. “I’m more than willing to give up that privilege to visit Putin’s Russia to support Ukraine, and I would do it 100 out of 100 times.”