Russian Police Detain Kremlin Critic Alexei Navalny on Arrival in Moscow

January 17, 2021 Updated: January 17, 2021

MOSCOW—Police detained prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on arrival at a Moscow airport on Sunday after he flew home to Russia from Germany for the first time since he was poisoned last summer.

The move, which could see Navalny jailed for 3.5 years for allegedly flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence, is likely to spark a wave of Western criticism of President Vladimir Putin.

In a case that drew wide international attention, Navalny was poisoned last summer by what German military tests showed was a Novichok nerve agent, a version of events the Kremlin rejects.

Navalny’s plane from Berlin was diverted to another Moscow airport at the last minute in an apparent effort by authorities to thwart journalists and supporters greeting him.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on board a plane before the departure for Moscow at an airport in Berlin
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on board a plane before the departure for the Russian capital Moscow at an airport in Berlin, Germany, on Jan. 17, 2021. (Polina Ivanova/Reuters)

After Navalny said last week he planned to return home, the Moscow prison service (FSIN) said it would do everything to arrest him once he returned, accusing him of flouting the terms of a suspended prison sentence for embezzlement, a 2014 case he says was trumped up.

But the 44-year-old opposition politician laughed and joked with journalists on his plane, saying he was not afraid and did not believe he would be arrested.

In the event, he was swiftly detained when he showed his passport to border guards before formally entering Russia, Reuters witnesses said. His wife, Yulia, his spokeswoman, and his lawyer were allowed to enter Russia.

FSIN said in a statement Navalny had been detained due to the alleged violations of his suspended prison sentence and would be held in custody until a court hearing later this month that will rule whether to convert his suspended sentence into a real 3.5 jail term.

Navalny, one of Putin’s most prominent domestic critics, faces potential trouble in three other criminal cases too, all of which he says are politically motivated.

Navalny says Putin was behind his poisoning. The Kremlin denies involvement, says it has seen no evidence that he was poisoned, and that he was free to return to Russia.

Navalny says the Kremlin is afraid of him.

The Kremlin, which only refers to him as the “Berlin patient,” laughs that off. Putin allies point to opinion polls that show the Russian leader is far more popular than Navalny, whom they call a blogger rather than a politician.

Thwarted Supporters

European Union members Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia called for the “imposition of restrictive measures” against Russia following Navalny’s arrest.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the move.

“Deeply troubled by Russia’s decision to arrest Aleksey Navalny,” he said in a statement on Twitter. “Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain, political opponents.”

Navalny took a flight operated by Russian airline Pobeda, owned by state-controlled Aeroflot.

His supporters gathered at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport despite a forecast of bitterly cold minus 22 Celsius weather and over 4,500 new coronavirus cases a day in the Russian capital.

The authorities’ decision to switch airports to Sheremetyevo airport, ostensibly for technical reasons, thwarted them.

Russia_Law enforcement officers
Law enforcement officers stand guard before the expected arrival of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on a flight from the German capital Berlin at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow, Russia, on Jan. 17, 2021. (Handout via Reuters)

OVD-Info, a monitoring group, said police had detained 53 people in Moscow and five in St Petersburg.

The Moscow prosecutor’s office, which had officially warned 15 pro-Navalny organisers, had said meeting him en masse was illegal because it was not sanctioned by the authorities.

By Polina Ivanova and Maria Vasilyeva