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Prominent Putin Critic Alexei Navalny Believed to Be Poisoned

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The prominent Putin critic Alexei Navalny remains in a Russian hospital after an alleged poison attack despite his family’s efforts to seek treatment outside the country, a look at Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s foreign policy, and the Sri Lankan president moves to strengthen his hold on power.

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The Fate of ‘The Man Vladimir Putin Fears Most’ Is in Doubt 

Alexei Navalny, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was hospitalized on Thursday after a suspected poisoning, immediately raising suspicions that the Kremlin was involved. Navalny fell ill on a plane to Moscow after drinking a cup of tea at the airport in the Siberian city of Tomsk. Navalny’s illness became so severe that the plane was forced to make an emergency landing in the city of Omsk, where he was taken to a local hospital before slipping into a coma.

Navalny has been an active player on the Russian political scene since 1999, gaining a large following in recent years for his willingness to publicly criticize Putin and his United Russia party, as well as for his work exposing the corruption of top government officials. Navalny and his supporters have been subjected to extensive legal and political harassment, and Navalny notably had his bid to challenge Putin for president in 2018 shut down over charges of fraud.

Was it Putin? Navalny was once described as “the man Vladimir Putin fears most,” so it is unsurprising that the blame immediately fell on the Russian president. And for good reason: the Kremlin has been linked in the past to the killings of multiple individuals considered threats, and poisoning is usually the chosen method.

Or was it local politicians? But as Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon wrote, that analysis is flawed, and the culprits were more likely local figures who found it advantageous to remove Navalny for their own purposes. Indeed, Navalny had been campaigning in support of local opposition candidates ahead of next month’s regional elections in the days before he fell ill. “While political power in Russia is highly centralized under Putin,” Mackinnon wrote, “the system is not without its rogue elements looking to settle personal scores, [and] protect their own economic interests.”

That doesn’t mean Putin is blameless, she added. He has “presided over a system where political opponents, journalists, and human rights activists are assaulted and assassinated, often with impunity,” which encourages even those who do not answer directly to the Kremlin to adopt its tactics for eliminating rivals.

Will he receive proper medical treatment in Russia? According to Navalny’s family, doctors in Omsk have refused to discharge him so he can receive medical treatment abroad. Relatives and aides contend that the Kremlin critic’s life is in danger in Russia.

The hospital’s decision came one hour before a plane was due to evacuate Navalny to Berlin. The chief doctor in Omsk, Alexander Murakhovsky, said he did not believe Navalny had been poisoned but would not elaborate on what caused his sudden illness and coma.

Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, said delaying his evacuation to Germany constituted “an attempt on his life.”

What We’re Following Today

The Biden doctrine. With the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is now officially the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. Biden’s approach to foreign policy stands in sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s, and if he wins the presidency in November, Washington’s foreign policy priorities could change dramatically.

Biden will be faced with the task of undoing the immense damage caused by the Trump administration, including rebuilding the United States’ strained relationships abroad and recommitting to international institutions. He has already promised to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, aiming to reestablish the United States’ leadership of international efforts to confront global challenges.

He has also pledged to strengthen U.S. security alliances, including NATO, and bilateral ties with South Korea, Australia, Israel, and Japan. He has also said he would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.

It’s not Obama’s world anymore. But a President Biden would be stepping into an international arena significantly different than the one he left in 2017. China is now almost universally considered a rival of the United States, and although his approach to Beijing will likely be far less combative than Trump’s, the U.S.-Chinese relationship will probably continue to be characterized by competition rather than cooperation. As James Traub wrote, Biden’s foreign policy will likely be defined by a struggle between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism.

U.S. to push for snapback sanctions on Iran. The United States is set to initiate the process to trigger the Iran nuclear deal’s snapback mechanism, which, if successful, would reimpose all pre-2015 sanctions on Iran. But several international powers, including many European countries, insist that the United States relinquished the right to do so after it withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018. The Trump administration has pushed back, arguing that language used in the Security Council resolution that accompanied the deal grants the right to trigger the snapback to all of the deal’s original signatories.

The move follows Washington’s failure last week to push through a U.N. Security Council resolution extending the arms embargo on Iran, which is due to expire in October. That resolution’s defeat has led some observers to suggest that Trump’s latest wranglings over Iran are little more than an effort to kill off the nuclear deal for good.

Sri Lanka to hand more power to the president. Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced on Thursday that he will scrap a constitutional amendment limiting the president to two terms, a significant step toward his party’s objective of strengthening the power of the presidency. He also announced plans to introduce a new constitution, which would give the president’s office several powers it held prior to constitutional reforms introduced by Rajapaksa’s predecessor. 

Rajapaksa won a significant mandate for his agenda in this month’s legislative elections, with his party—led by his brother Mahinda—securing a commanding majority of seats. Although it fell just short of the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution at will, it gained enough support from some of the smaller parties to cross that threshold.

Iraq’s difficulty in reining in militias. A string of killings and attempted assassinations of activists in the southern Iraqi city of Basra in recent weeks highlights the continued difficulty the Iraqi government faces as it tries to rein in the country’s myriad armed groups. After taking power in May, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi pledged to take control of the armed groups and reassert the state’s authority over the entirety of Iraq’s national territory.

Writing for Foreign Policy earlier this month, Shelly Kittleson reported that Kadhimi has instituted several reforms aimed at curtailing their power, but warned that he would continue to face significant challenges as militias began to feel the pressure.

Scholarships for nothing. A German university is offering “idleness grants” to pay individuals to literally do nothing at all. Applicants will be asked to describe the activity they intend to refrain from, for how long, and, crucially, why it is important not to engage in this activity. The so-called indolence project aims to explore the seeming contradiction of a society that promotes sustainability while also valuing success, with the stated aim of turning the value that society places on achievements and accomplishments on its head.

The applications will form part of an exhibition at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg and will be structured around the core question: “What can I refrain from so that my life has fewer negative consequences on the lives of others?”

That’s it for today. 

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Photo credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

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