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Alexey Navalny returns to Russia five months after being poisoned

Russia’s leading opposition figure and chief Kremlin critic, Alexey Navalny, has returned to Russia five months after he left in a coma after being poisoned with military grade nerve agent Novichok.

Navalny and his wife Yulia landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport just after 8 p.m. local time (12 p.m. ET), according to flight data information. He had originally been scheduled to land at Vnukovo airport but was diverted. CNN has been unable to establish why the plane was diverted.

His 2.5-hour flight by Russian carrier Pobeda took off from Berlin Brandenburg Airport on Sunday afternoon. The landing at Sheremetyevo took supporters and journalists by surprise, after they had gathered to meet him outside of Vnukovo, despite temperatures of around -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees F).

Russian media broadcast images of police arresting several of Navalny’s allies waiting for him at Vnukovo, including politician and lawyer Lyubov Sobol and Ruslan Shaveddinov, who works for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Navalny was taken to Germany after his poisoning in August. After an extraordinary recovery there, he appeared ready on Sunday to return to his role as the thorn in President Vladimir Putin’s side, seemingly undeterred by his close shave with death.

Navalny thanked all the other passengers as he and his wife, Yulia Navalnya, boarded the plane in Berlin, according to a live feed from TV Rain. “Thanks to you all, I hope we will get there fine,” Navalny said. “And I’m sure everything will be absolutely great.”

A joint investigation by CNN and the group Bellingcat implicated the Russian Security Service (FSB) in Navalny’s poisoning, piecing together how an elite unit at the agency followed Navalny’s team throughout a trip to Siberia in August, where Navalny was poisoned and fell ill on a flight to Moscow.

The investigation also found that this unit, which included chemical weapons experts, had followed Navalny on more than 30 trips to and from Moscow since 2017. Russia denies involvement in Navalny’s poisoning.

But several Western officials and Navalny himself have openly blamed Russia.

“They are doing everything to scare me,” Navalny said in an Instagram post and video Wednesday. “But what they are doing there is not of much interest to me. Russia is my country, Moscow is my city, I miss it.”

Russian authorities reacted swiftly. On Thursday, the country’s prison authority (FSIN) said it was obliged “to take all action to detain” Navalny before a court hearing he is due to attend.

It is unclear whether they intend to arrest him on landing or allow him to first return home.

In an Instagram post on Saturday, Navalny wrote a post to thank Germany, adding that Germans were “nice, sympathetic, friendly people.”

“Doctors and nurses. Physical therapists and police officers. A lot of cops. The neighbors who invited us to drink, and those who allowed us to rent. Politicians and lawyers. Shopkeepers. Journalists. The prosecutors who interrogated me on requests from Russia. Coaches. Teachers. And even, once, the Chancellor. I had quite a wide circle of friends here. And I can only say a huge thank you to everyone.”

What’s next for Navalny?

Navalny, who has been detained by Russian authorities many times, was placed on the country’s federal wanted list during his time in Germany at the request of the FSIN, which in December accused him of violating probation terms in a years-old fraud case that Navalany dismisses as politically motivated.

Now the FSIN alleges that Navalny has been in violation of the terms of his suspended sentence by failing to show up for scheduled inspections.

The FSIN has requested that the court replace his suspended sentence with a real prison term. A hearing has been scheduled for January 29, and if the request is satisfied, Navalny will likely be jailed for 3.5 years.

In 2014, Navalny was found guilty of fraud after he and his brother Oleg were accused of embezzling 30 million rubles ($540,000) from a Russian subsidiary of French cosmetics company Yves Rocher. While Navalny was given a suspended sentence, his brother was jailed.

If Navalny is not convicted later in January, he will still face an investigation for a newer fraud case, in which he and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have been accused of misusing donations from supporters. That will give authorities a choice in how to muzzle him — from placing him under pre-trial house arrest to a weeks-long stay in a detention center.

But political observers are speculating on a full spectrum of possible scenarios, from immediate arrest to a laborious charade of legal threats and short-term detentions.

Abbas Gallyamov, a political consultant and former Kremlin speechwriter, said on Facebook that Navalny would “definitely” be arrested.

“Why am I so sure? Because by initiating these legal cases, the Kremlin has created an expectation within the society,” Gallyamov wrote. “Should it back out of this now, everyone would see it as a weakness, and most of all, [Putin] is afraid to do anything deemed weak.”

A senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Andrey Kolesnikov, said in an interview with TV Rain that Navalny could remain free but be portrayed as a “boogeyman” in bed with the United States, interfering with Russia’s political affairs.

“That is [the Kremlin could] start playing political games with him: Leave him at large, make his life even harder than before, and have him as an object of constant attacks, a permanent body that will enforce the line of an American administration or the CIA.”

Putin, who refuses to acknowledge Navalny as a legitimate opponent, has described the extensive media coverage and investigations into the poisoning as a fabrication by Western intelligence, and said in December that if Russian security services had wanted to kill Navalny, they “would have finished” the job.

“The situation with Navalny looks like two trains running towards each other at full speed, bound to collide,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, a visiting fellow, also at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “There will be many victims.”

Attacks on Navalny’s allies have indeed continued. Pavel Zelensky, a cameraman with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, was arrested Friday and will be detained until the end of February.

According to Agora, a Russian human rights organization, Zelensky was accused of extremism for tweets from September, in which he blamed the government for journalist Irina Slavina’s self-immolation. Before taking her own life, Slavina blamed pressure from Russian law enforcement for her decision to self-immolate.

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