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5 months after being poisoned, top Putin critic Alexei Navalny detained upon Moscow return

Navalny knew there was a chance he would be arrested once back in Russia.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny takes his seat for a flight from Berlin to Moscow on January 17. He was detained after arrival.
Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Alexei Navalny, the leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was just arrested on his return to Moscow — five months after almost dying from what was alleged to be a government-directed poison attack.

Navalny fell ill at a Siberian airport before boarding a flight to Moscow last August. His team didn’t believe Russian hospitals were giving him proper care or doing enough to figure out what happened to him, so with the help of a Berlin-based humanitarian group, they moved Navalny to Germany to recover. A top chemical weapons watchdog confirmed last October that Navalny was poisoned with novichok, a deadly nerve agent the Russian government has been known to use on political dissidents.

Navalny remained in Germany for months, working with journalists to uncover what happened to him while always vowing to return to Russia. A report from CNN and Bellingcat clearly implicates the Russian government for almost killing Navalny, and would seem to implicate Putin in the poisoning, given such an operation would almost certainly require Putin’s approval. And in YouTube videos viewed over 40 million times, Navalny directly accused the Kremlin of trying to kill him.

Ever since, Putin’s government has done everything it can to dissuade Navalny from coming home.

Late last year, Russia placed him on its federal wanted list, claiming he avoided inspectors while abroad. As part of a probation sentence in a 2014 embezzlement case, Navalny had to check in with those federal authorities regularly. Navalny claims that the embezzlement charges are politically motivated.

Even with the threat of arrest hanging over him, Navalny flew to Moscow on Sunday while downplaying widespread fears that he’d be detained upon arrival. “It’s impossible,” he told people aboard his flight, despite Russian authorities telling him he’d be subject to arrest. “I feel like a citizen of Russia who has every right to return to my home.”

It was not impossible: Video shows an official — it’s unclear from which security service — approaching Navalny at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport (he was originally scheduled to arrive at another airport, but his flight was unexpectedly diverted) near passport control. Navalny then kisses his wife, Yulia, before going with the official and other guards.

Navalny’s lawyer was not allowed to accompany him because he had apparently gone through customs. The country’s federal prison service now says Navalny will be detained pending a court hearing for the alleged violation of his probation.

This kind of thing isn’t new for Navalny. As mentioned, he’s been arrested before — and even poisoned before — so it’s possible he’ll eventually be released and go back to leading Russia’s anti-Putin movement. Sometimes the Kremlin just wants to remind Navalny who’s in charge, and slow down his work, in a manner that attempts to maintain the illusion of Russian democracy.

But it’s also possible Putin has had it, especially as he seeks to stay in power for life. Removing his top political nemesis would surely make such a ploy easier, though it may invite condemnation from other nations, including the United States newly led by President-elect Joe Biden.

Hours after Navalny’s detainment, incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted a statement condemning the Putin critic’s detainment. “Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” he wrote.

If Navalny’s team is concerned, they’re not showing their worries publicly. “He is not afraid. I also am not afraid, and I call on you all not to be afraid,” Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s wife, told supporters outside the airport.

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