Russia’s opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has said he will return to the country five months after falling victim to a suspected FSB poisoning, risking his own freedom to issue a direct challenge to the Kremlin.
Navalny, who has been recovering in Berlin since he was targeted in August with a novichok-style poison, said he planned to fly back to Russia on Sunday despite clear signs that Moscow is searching for a pretext to jail him.
“I’ll be coming home on 17 January, on Sunday, on a Pobeda flight. Come meet me,” the politician wrote in an online post on Wednesday.
During his time abroad, Navalny collaborated with Bellingcat to identify the members of an FSB hit squad who had followed him around Russia for several years before he fell violently ill on a flight from the Siberian city of Tomsk in August.
Navalny was evacuated to Berlin’s Charité clinic where doctors identified the poison used against him as similar to the one used by GRU agents in the attack on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.
Last month Navalny elicited a confession from a member of the FSB team, who confirmed details of the attack and said the concentration of novichok would have been highest in the politician’s underpants.
The revelations have been deeply embarrassing for the Kremlin, which has denied any link to the poisoning and even whether an attack took place. In December, Vladimir Putin called the Bellingcat report a “falsification” and suggested that Navalny was backed by western intelligence agencies.
Since then, Russian courts and investigators have taken steps to revive criminal cases and initiate new ones against Navalny in an apparent effort to keep him in exile.
In late December, Russia’s investigative committee launched a case against him for fraud, claiming he had appropriated millions of dollars in donations to his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
This week Navalny uploaded a court document showing that officials were trying to revoke a suspended sentence against him and replace it with a real jail term. “Putin is so enraged that I survived after his poisoning that he ordered the FSIN to go to court and demand that my suspended sentence be changed to a real one,” he wrote.
Navalny’s allies and other opponents of Putin cheered the opposition politician’s plan to return to Russia. “Good man. Although there is a risk. Something like that happened in my life in 2003,” wrote Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who was put in prison for a decade after clashing with Putin in the early 2000s.
Navalny has irritated some of Russia’s most powerful men with his slick YouTube investigations into the industrial-scale corruption that he says has proliferated under Putin. Over the last decade his operation has grown from a blog into a guerrilla newsroom, investigative journalism outfit and a campaign strategy headquarters for opponents of the ruling United Russia party.
In his post on Wednesday, he said he had never considered staying abroad permanently. “The question of returning or not was never before me. Because I didn’t leave. I ended up in Germany after arriving there in a resuscitation capsule,” Navalny wrote.