Russia’s prison service said it has “an order to take measures to arrest him when establishing his whereabouts.”
That means he could be detained immediately upon his return from Berlin, where he has been recovering from a nerve agent poisoning during a trip to Siberia in August. Navalny and his supporters say the attack was ordered by President Vladimir Putin — an accusation the Kremlin denies.
But jailing Navalny could create another conundrum for Putin’s government, analysts said. A throng of supporters is expected to greet Navalny at Vnukovo International Airport — more than 2,000 people responded “going” to one Facebook group.
Arresting him would elevate his image among his backers as a political martyr. A response from Western governments, perhaps in the form of more sanctions, is also possible.
Amid reports that he would be escorted on to the flight by German security officials for his protection, two black Audis with tinted windows surrounded by police cars could be seen on the tarmac near the plane, while airport officials told watching journalists they weren’t allowed to take pictures.
As Navalny made his way to his seat in the 13th row, reporters on the plane lobbed questions at him. He encouraged them to take their seats and fasten their seat belts so the flight could take off on time.
“Are you not scared, Alexei?” one person asked.
“I feel great,” Navalny said. “This is my best moment of the past five months.”
Asked what he expects in Moscow, Navalny replied with his trademark humor: Subzero temperatures, he said, and a warm welcome.
Tatiana Stanovaya, head of political analysis firm R. Politik, wrote on the Telegram messaging app that Navalny’s arrest would trigger protests that would test “how far [Russian security services] and the most repressive apparatus of the state can go.”
Konstantin Kalachev, who heads the Political Expert Group, a Russian think tank, told Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper that an arrest would turn Navalny into a Nelson Mandela-like figure eight months before the country’s parliamentary elections.
Ahead of his arrival on Sunday, prosecutors in Moscow issued a warning on their website urging people not to take part in an “unauthorized mass event” at Vnukovo airport. Police buses lined up outside the airport hours before his flight was scheduled to land, and the international arrivals hall was blocked off with an opaque screen. The airport told journalists that they would not be allowed on the property, citing coronavirus concerns.
At Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport, a handful of supporters and reporters waited to greet Navalny before his departure. Ekaterina Raykova-Merz and Andreas Merz-Raykov held up a sign that said “The time of dictators has come to an end. Putin is afraid of Navalny.”
Navalny became gravely ill during an Aug. 20 flight to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk. After receiving initial treatment in Omsk, where the plane made an emergency landing, Navalny was transferred to a Berlin hospital, where he spent more than two weeks in a medically induced coma. He has not been back in Russia since.
The investigative website Bellingcat reported recently that it used telecommunications and travel data to show that eight Russian state security agents were in the vicinity when Navalny was poisoned in Tomsk.
The Kremlin has denied any role in Navalny’s poisoning and has rebuffed Western leaders’ calls for an investigation.
Putin, during a December news conference, seemed to confirm that Navalny was being watched but denied that Moscow was responsible for his poisoning. He laughed and asked: “Who needs him anyway? If we had really wanted, we’d have finished the job.”
The government’s messaging on Navalny — alleging without evidence that he’s working with the CIA — has had some success in shaping Russian public opinion.
Forty-nine percent of Russians polled by the independent Levada Center in late December said the poisoning was either staged or “a provocation of Western special services.” Just 15 percent said it was an attempt by authorities to eliminate a political opponent.
Navalny could boost his popularity by brazenly returning to Russia despite facing imminent arrest. Other prominent activists, such as businessman Mikhail Khodorkhovsky and chess legend Garry Kasparov, continue to criticize the Kremlin, but from abroad.
Ruslan Karadanov, who went to the Berlin airport on Sunday to show support, said he thought Navalny was “very brave” to go back.
“If he wants to continue his political activity he has no other choice,” he said. “Here in Germany, he’ll just be forgotten.”
In announcing his planned homecoming, Navalny said he “never considered the choice whether to go back or not.”
“I never left,” he said on Instagram. “I ended up in Germany, arriving there in an intensive care box, for one reason: they tried to kill me.”
Morris reported from Berlin.