In Depth

What does Alexei Navalny’s ‘return from the dead’ mean for Vladimir Putin?

Leading dissident vows to ‘destroy’ Russian leader following full recovery from novichok attack

Alexei Navalny has said that he is “back from the dead” in his first interview since recovering from his alleged poisoning at the hands of Vladimir Putin.

The Russian opposition leader, who collapsed during a domestic flight in Russia, told German magazine Der Spiegel that he will return to Russia, threatening to “destroy” President Putin.

“Not going back would mean that Putin has won and achieved his goal. “And my job now is to remain the guy who isn't afraid. And I'm not afraid,” Navalny said.

What did Navalny say?

44-year-old Navalny, one of the most prominent of Putin’s critics, fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on 20 August, before being evacuated to Berlin for treatment. He was discharged a week ago after making a full recovery.

Medical professionals in Germany, France and Sweden have all confirmed that Navalny was poisoned with the novichok nerve agent used in the failed assassination attempt of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018.

Navalny told to Der Spiegel that “only three people can give orders to put into action ‘active measures’ and use novichok”, listing “FSB [Federal Security Service] director Alexander Bortnikov, foreign intelligence service head Sergey Naryshkin and the director of the GRU [the Russian military intelligence agency] ”.

None of these three can make the decision to deploy the nerve agent without the approval of Putin, Navalny claims. When asked if he was sure of the president’s involvement, Navalny said that “if it wasn’t him, things would be a lot worse”. 

“One cup of novichok would be enough to poison all passengers in a large Berlin subway station,” he said. “If access to the agent isn’t restricted to three people, but actually 30, then it's a global threat. That would be terrible.”

Will he return to Russia?

Navalny also vowed to return to Russia as soon as he has fully recovered, saying he would not allow Putin “the gift” of his absence.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s chief spokesperson, said Navalny’s remarks about Putin’s involvement were “unfounded and unacceptable”, but added that the opposition leader would be free to return to Russia if he wished, The Times reports.

“Any Russian citizen can return back home at any time, and there is no heroism here,” Peskov said.

However, Peskov also accused Navalny of working with the CIA, a claim that “raises the stakes” of his rivalry with the Kremlin, as it is the “first time the Russian authorities have directly accused Putin’s highest-profile critic of working with a foreign intelligence agency”, Reuters reports.

“Given the frequent arrest of people accused of working for foreign spy agencies in Russia”, Peskov’s accusation “comes across as a warning against returning”, The Guardian says.

Russian politicians loyal to Putin echoed the derision, with the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, calling Navalny “a shameless and mean man”.

What might his return mean for Putin?

Initially, Navalny’s return to Russia will likely not change too much in the country, with BBC Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford writing that the Kremlin will be preoccupied with “discrediting him as thoroughly as possible”.

No physical response is expected, as “extreme measures” against the opposition leader are too “risky”, but he will likely face an “intensification of methods already in play against him and his staff”, The Times says. This could include “arbitrary detentions, fines, court cases, confiscations of property and media smears — with the spectre of another physical assault always in the background”, the paper continues.

And the propaganda effort against him is already gaining momentum, with The Times noting that journalist Dmitry Kiselev, widely considered to Putin’s chief propagandist, travelling to the hotel in Siberia where Navalny alleges he was poisoned and “tried on the bathrobe in his room, ridiculing claims that novichok had been used”.

However, some experts have said that the Kremlin’s decision to accuse Navalny of collaborating with the CIA could severely backfire. 

Germany and other Western countries have already demanded an explanation from the Kremlin for the illness and the CIA allegation will likely “add to pressure on Western leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to take action over his case”, Reuters says. 

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