Vladimir Putin likes his opponents in exile: it makes them easier to portray as defectors who have turned their back on Russia. It suited him to have Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition leader in Russia, hiding in Germany fearing he’d be arrested (or worse) if he returned. But now, Navalny has flown back to Moscow – and was duly arrested at passport control. Every stage of his return – his flight out, his arrest, his goodbye to his wife – has been vividly documented on social media with images already making their way around Russia and the world. Navalny has made a swap: he has sacrificed his liberty to leave no doubt about his commitment to his country. And no doubt about how Putin operates.
It's now five months since Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent (and a signature Kremlin poision) and taken to a Berlin hospital while unconscious. 'The question of whether to return or not never stood before me, simply because I didn’t leave,' he tweeted last week. 'I ended up in Germany, having arrived there in an intensive care box, for one reason alone: they tried to kill me.' His supporters were waiting for him last night at Vnukovo airport but his plane was directed to Sheremetyevo, another one of Moscow's four airports, where security officials in riot gear were waiting.
Navalny never made it past security, but his deft use of social media made the most of his few minutes of freedom back in Russia. Before his flight took off, he posted a video on Instagram in which his wife Yulia quotes Brat 2, a Russian crime drama: 'Bring us some vodka, boy. We’re flying home.'
Their flight from Berlin was packed with journalists. When they landed, the livestream started again. Pictures were taken of him kissing goodbye to his wife before his arrest. She made it on to the concourse and was welcomed into the airport to cheers. Navalny is now in custody in a police station in northwest Moscow, to decide if his suspended sentence of three and a half years should be replaced with a jail term*
These images of Navalny’s wife wiping his tears as they say goodbye will be everywhere in Russian history, art and literature. Doubt Putin will have much in those pages.
Putin has faced opponents before but Navalny, 44, is one of the most energetic, determined and able. (Anne Applebaum profiled him for The Spectator here). He ran a campaign last year against a new law that would in effect allow Putin to stay in the Kremlin for another 15 years, saying Russians should boycott the referendum to deny Putin the veneer of democracy. His return to Moscow will be designed for the same purpose: to show the world what happens to Russian opposition leaders who get too powerful.
Navalny already has the support of Joe Biden’s team: Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser, has called for him to be 'immediately released'. But the chances are pretty small. Putin had made him an unspoken offer of liberty and exile: he has chosen Russia and prison. The next few weeks and months will show if that makes the bigger impact.
* UPDATE: His hearing has been set for 29 January to determine whether his suspended sentence of three-and-a-half years should be replaced with a jail term.