Aleksei Navalny knew that as soon as he set foot in Russia, he would be arrested, and he had no idea what this could mean.
Mr. Navalny had been abroad since August because President Vladimir Putin’s political thugs poisoned him. They almost killed him, but a pilot rerouted his flight to Omsk, where doctors kept him alive until he could be taken to Germany. Ironically, his flight was again rerouted on Sunday. This time, it was because Russian officials were afraid of the crowds waiting to greet him at the airport in Moscow, where his flight was supposed to land.
Mr. Navalny knew he would be arrested because he had been arrested before. Mr. Putin only knows how to rule by force. But he is also learning that in the age of social media, every arrest on a false charge only makes Mr. Navalny’s supporters grow and makes it easier for him to say that Russia’s leaders are corrupt.
Mr. Navalny knew what was coming because, like the dissidents of the Soviet era, he knows that the truth is the one thing a corrupt and authoritarian regime can’t stand. “I am not afraid. Mr. Navalny told his supporters at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, “I know I’m right,” before kissing his wife goodbye and being rushed away by police officers who said they would use force if he didn’t follow their orders. “All of the charges against me are made up.”
The charge that got him arrested was that he had broken a suspended sentence for a fake embezzlement charge from 2014. Russia’s federal prison service said that he had not made the required report to authorities every two months. The government tried to kill him, but the prison service didn’t know that, and neither did the state-controlled media when he came back and was arrested.
But they know in Russia. The internet has given Mr. Navalny, who is 44 years old, a voice that Mr. Putin and his political police have not been able to stop. Millions of people have watched his populist, hard-hitting, and often funny videos making fun of the “crooks and thieves” in the elite. These videos touch on Russians’ growing discontent with corruption and a slow economy. Even though Mr. Navalny was told over and over that he couldn’t run against Mr. Putin directly at the polls, he and his supporters all over Russia ran for seats on local and regional councils and had a surprising amount of success.
In August, someone finally tried to kill Mr. Navalny in a very bad way. He almost died when he was poisoned on a trip to Siberia. Only because of pressure from other countries did the authorities let him go to Germany. There, the poison was found to be Novichok, a nerve agent made by Russian and Soviet chemists that was used to try to kill an ex-Russian double agent in Britain. More truths were to come out: Independent researchers used leaked phone records to show in December that Russian agents had followed Mr. Navalny on his fateful trip to Siberia, and that Mr. Navalny himself had called one of them pretending to be a senior security official to get what amounted to a detailed confession.
Mr. Putin, of course, didn’t believe the evidence. He accused Mr. Navalny of working for American intelligence agencies and said, with a smirk, that if Russian agents had wanted to kill him, “they would have probably finished the job.”
They didn’t, though, and instead made a troublemaker into a hero around the world. If Mr. Putin does decide to put Mr. Navalny in jail, he will be taking care of a well-known political prisoner. If he lets Mr. Navalny go, he will look weak to his lieutenants and followers, and the Navalny-led opposition will attack him all the time. The least likely choice for Mr. Putin would be to face Mr. Navalny openly and fairly at the polls, like in the upcoming parliamentary elections in September.