Russian authorities have repeatedly tried to play down the political importance of Alexei Navalny, the opposition politician who was poisoned in Siberia five months ago, saying he is unpopular.
President Vladimir Putin, while answering questions from reporters in December on the poison attack, said, ‘who needs him anyway’.
But the arrest of the 44-year-old Kremlin critic upon his return to Moscow on Sunday — he left the country in a coma from the near-fatal chemical attack — only belies such claims.
The authorities diverted his plane to a different airport on the outskirts and detained him before he could get past the passport control, while riot police were deployed to stop his supporters from entering the arrival zone of another airport.
Russian authorities had warned that he would be arrested if he returned from Germany, where he was recovering from the poison attack, as he had been wanted since late December for violations of his suspended sentence from an embezzlement case.
But Mr. Navalny, who has accused Mr. Putin of ordering the poison attack, still chose to travel to Russia, in an open defiance of Mr. Putin’s power, and courted arrest. On Monday, a judge remanded him in custody for 30 days.
In Mr. Navalny, Mr. Putin has found his strongest political opponent in his two-decade-long rule. Once known for his extreme nationalist and anti-immigrant views, Mr. Navalny has turned himself into the embodiment of the anti-Kremlin politics in Russia, which remains tightly controlled by Mr. Putin.
And it is no secret that the Kremlin has tried its best to suppress his political movement. He has been detained several times and criminal cases launched against him. He was barred from contesting the 2018 Presidential election.
And in August, he collapsed while on a domestic flight from Siberia. German doctors who treated him later confirmed that he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.
Western media investigations had implicated Russian agents, an allegation the government has denied. Even if Russian agents were not involved, Mr. Putin cannot escape questions about his most prominent political opponent being poisoned within Russia.
His government has the responsibility to investigate what happened in Siberia and bring the perpetrators to justice. That is what any government that believes in the rule of law should be doing.
But instead of finding and punishing those who attacked him, Mr. Putin’s government, like any dictatorial regime, is going after the victim.
It is ironic that Mr. Putin, who recently got the Constitution amended so that he could stay in power beyond two consecutive terms, is still perturbed by the presence of a leader who he says nobody wants.
If the long years of attempts to suppress Mr. Navalny’s political activism have achieved anything, it is that he is now a stronger opposition figure with international standing.