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Kremlin Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny Detained Upon Russia Return

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go to Russia now, where Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained shortly after landing in Moscow today, five months after he was poisoned by a rare nerve agent last summer. Navalny had been recuperating since then in Berlin but insisted he would return even though he knew he would likely face arrest by Russian authorities. We're joined now by NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow, where he's been following Navalny's arrest.

Lucian, thanks so much for joining us.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So just bring us up to date and remind us how we got to this point today.

KIM: Sure. This is the latest dramatic chapter in the dramatic story of President Vladimir Putin's most outspoken critic. As you said, Alexei Navalny was poisoned last summer. He was on a domestic flight in Siberia, and only thanks to the intervention of Germany was he allowed to leave for medical treatment. European experts later determined he'd been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok, first developed in the Soviet Union.

Russia has vehemently denied that it poisoned him. But it's really interesting. Putin has such an allergy to Navalny that he won't even mention his name. Putin has indicated that he thinks Navalny is a nobody who isn't even worth killing. But at the same time, Navalny was barred from running against Putin in the last presidential election back in 2018, and he has had to deal with a slew of legal cases against him.

MARTIN: So walk us through what happened at the airport.

KIM: Right. Well, there was a massive police presence at the airport where he was scheduled to land. The police even made some arrests. And then, really at the last minute, the flight was diverted to another Moscow airport. Journalists accompanying Navalny livestreamed how he and his wife Yulia made their way into the terminal. Navalny made a brief statement saying all the cases against him were fabricated and that he had no reason to be afraid. And then minutes later, he was detained by law enforcement when he got to immigration. He had time to kiss his wife goodbye and then was led away. He's now going to be held until a judge hears a complaint by authorities that he violated the terms of a suspended prison sentence.

MARTIN: And tell me more about that. What is the charge here?

KIM: It goes back to a rather murky embezzlement case a few years ago when Navalny received a suspended prison sentence. Later, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Navalny's favor.

MARTIN: So what does Navalny hope to achieve by returning?

KIM: Well, by returning, he's really throwing down the gauntlet to Putin. The Kremlin thought that threats of arrest might make him think twice about returning. But Navalny understands that exile is a place where he'd likely be forgotten and that jailing him is also not the best option from the point of view of the Kremlin. This poisoning case has made Navalny an international cause celebre. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited him in the hospital, and she and French President Emmanuel Macron keep bringing it up when they talk to Putin.

Joe Biden, when he was still candidate for president, blamed Putin for the poisoning and said that as president, he'd hold Putin accountable. So Navalny returns to Russia with a much bigger international stature that (ph) he had before, and he's hoping he can leverage that against the Kremlin. And now he's openly daring Putin to put him in jail.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Lucian, thank you.

KIM: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.