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Alexey Navalny and his wife Yuliastand in line at the passport control after arriving at Sheremetyevo airport, outside Moscow, on Jan. 17, 2021.Mstyslav Chernov/The Associated Press

Alexey Navalny believes Russia’s security services tried to kill him last summer on the orders of President Vladimir Putin. He also knew he was likely to be arrested as soon as he tried to return to the country.

And yet the Russian opposition leader flew home to Moscow on Sunday anyway, after five months recuperating in Germany, and effectively handed himself over to the same regime he has accused of poisoning him with Novichok.

“I’m not afraid because I know that I am right. I know all the criminal cases against me are fabricated,” Mr. Navalny said shortly after landing at Moscow’s Sherevmetyevo airport, speaking to reporters who had accompanied him on the flight from Berlin. He then embraced his wife Yulia, kissed her on the cheek, and walked toward passport control, where he was detained by a group of police officers.

The arrest was condemned by Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to U.S. president-elect Joe Biden – signalling the incoming administration intends to take a much more critical approach to Russia than outgoing President Donald Trump did.

“Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” Mr. Sullivan wrote on Twitter.

Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement that Canada “strongly condemns” Mr. Navalny’s arrest and he must be immediately released. “This is unacceptable and we will continue to demand an explanation into his poisoning.”

Mr. Navalny’s detention was also condemned on Sunday as “unacceptable” by European Council president Charles Michel. Amnesty International declared Mr. Navalny to be a prisoner of conscience.

The Kremlin has long claimed that Mr. Navalny is a minor figure, so unimportant that Mr. Putin has gone to great lengths to avoid speaking his name – describing the 44-year-old, who first rose to prominence as an online anti-corruption activist, as “that blogger.” More recently, Mr. Putin has referred to his nemesis as “the Berlin patient.”

Despite the official dismissiveness, the Kremlin’s reaction to Mr. Navalny’s return revealed the nervousness he has generated inside Russia’s ruling elite.

When a crowd of Mr. Navalny’s supporters gathered Sunday at Vnukovo airport, on the southern edge of Moscow, to greet his plane, the airport was abruptly closed just minutes before its scheduled arrival time. The plane carrying Mr. Navalny – he and his wife were travelling in economy class seats aboard the low-cost Pobeda (or “Victory”) airline – was redirected to Sherevmetyevo, in the north of the city.

Riot police then blocked Mr. Navalny’s supporters from leaving the Vnukovo region, ensuring that the man who has led a decade-old protest movement against Mr. Putin’s 21-year rule would not be welcomed by a cheering crowd on his return.

Several of Mr. Navalny’s closest aides, including his brother Oleg and Lyubov Sobol, the opposition’s most effective leader in Mr. Navalny’s absence, were detained at Vnukovo. Ms. Sobol had earlier posted on social media that she and her child had been followed by undercover officers “from aisle to aisle” by during a trip to the grocery store.

“Until recently, it was impossible to believe [Russian authorities] were so afraid,” Mr. Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, tweeted shortly after the plane carrying Mr. Navalny landed at Sherevmetyevo. “But here’s the confirmation.”

Though Russia’s official media studiously ignored the drama, hundreds of thousands watched live online broadcasts from pro-opposition journalists who were on the flight with Mr. Navalny. Online commentators expressed almost uniform support for Mr. Navalny as they watched him disembark to face his fate – support that was mixed with incredulity at his decision to return to Russia despite the alleged assassination attempt and the near-certainty of arrest.

Mr. Navalny was added to a national wanted list on Dec. 29, accused of breaking the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 fraud conviction widely viewed as trumped up as punishment for his political activities. The prison service didn’t seem to care that the alleged parole violation occurred because Mr. Navalny had been taken to Berlin in a coma after his poisoning.

He will reportedly be held in detention until a Jan. 29 court hearing, and could be jailed for up to 3½ years.

While other Russian politicians have challenged Mr. Putin, none have done it as effectively as Mr. Navalny. A lawyer by training, he has repeatedly embarrassed the Kremlin via YouTube videos highlighting the enormous wealth senior officials have accumulated during Mr. Putin’s long rule. While most Russian opposition politicians are largely unknown beyond the urban centres of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Mr. Navalny has built up a network of campaign offices across the sprawling country.

Investigative website Bellingcat, using mobile phone data and passenger records purchased online, found that a special unit of Russia’s FSB security service – including officers who specialized in poisons and chemical weapons – had followed the opposition leader on dozens of trips around Russia since 2017.

Bellingcat found that three members of the FSB team had trailed Mr. Navalny on his August trip to the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he was poisoned. Mr. Navalny later called one of the FSB operatives named in the Bellingcat report and, posing as a senior bureaucrat, recorded the alleged operative acknowledging the effort to poison him.

In an Instagram post announcing his return, Mr. Navalny said he never contemplated any option but returning to Russia as soon as he felt healthy enough. “Russia is my country, Moscow is my city, I miss them.”

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