Alexei Navalny Arrest Outrages U.S. Senators, Vladimir Putin 'Hiding Scared in the Corner'

Russian pro-democracy and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has been arrested on his return to Russia, having spent months recovering from a state assassination attempt in Germany.

Navalny, 44, almost died after allegedly being poisoned by Russian agents working for the FSB intelligence agency in Siberia in August. Long a target of state repression for his pro-democracy and campaigns and criticism of President Vladimir Putin, the August plot marked a serious escalation in the government's efforts to silence Navalny.

His re-arrest has prompted protests in Western democratic nations, where lawmakers have called for Navalny's release and condemned the Kremlin's repeated efforts to silence his pro-democracy movement.

In the U.S., politicians urged incoming President-Elect Joe Biden to put Navalny's status at the center of his expected pushback on Putin, after four years of President Donald Trump who was widely criticized for being too soft on the Russian dictator.

Navalny had spent five months recuperating in Berlin after he slipped into a coma while aboard a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20. Russian authorities allowed Navalny to be flown to Berlin for treatment two days after he fell ill, despite initially refusing to allow him to leave the country.

It was from Germany that Navalny worked with the Bellingcat investigative journalism organization to identify the FSB team involved in the assassination attempt. Navalny also posed as a national security official to speak with one agent by phone in detail about the operation and why it failed. Navalny has accused Putin of personally ordering the operation.

Navalny said last week he would return home to Russia despite the danger to his life and the threat of imprisonment. The Moscow prison service said it would arrest Navalny when he arrived back in the country, accusing him of violating the terms of a 2014 suspended prison sentence for embezzlement—charges Navalny says are baseless and politically motivated.

Navalny was arrested by officers when he arrived in Moscow. His flight was diverted to Sheremetyevo airport from another Moscow airport at the last minute, Reuters reported, for what authorities said was a technical reason but in what appeared to be an effort to bypass the supporters and journalists waiting to greet Navalny.

The activist could now be jailed for three and a half years for breaking the terms of his suspended prison sentence.

Biden's pick to be the next national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, wrote on Twitter that those behind the assassination effort should face justice.

"Mr. Navalny should be immediately released, and the perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable," Sullivan said. "The Kremlin's attacks on Mr. Navalny are not just a violation of human rights, but an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard."

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy replied to Sullivan's tweet and suggested it was proof that Biden's team will be skeptical of the Kremlin's claimed commitment to human rights and democracy in Russia.

"The Biden team knows that by giving a pass to Russia's human rights violations, America portrays weakness," Murphy wrote. "No Russia strategy can succeed—or be morally defensible - that does include strong support for heroes like Navalny."

Sen. Bob Menedez—the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—meanwhile, said Navalny's arrest shows the weakness of Putin and his government. "The Russian govt's fear of legitimate political opposition is on full display yet again today w/ @navalny's arrest," the Democratic lawmaker wrote.

"Putin should release him & engage in an actual political debate instead of hiding scared in the corner," he added. "The Russian people deserve better."

Sen. Bernie Sanders also called for Navalny's release and said the activist had "bravely" returned to Russia. "The United States must stand with those fighting corruption and working for democracy around the world," he added.

Support for Navalny exists within both parties in Washington, D.C. Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott said Navalny's re-arrest was "shameful and should be condemned by everyone."

Scott added: "He must be immediately released. Putin isn't our friend and refuses to tolerate opposition or respect basic rights. We must stand with those fighting for freedom and democracy."

Outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, said he was "deeply troubled" by Navalny's arrest. "Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain, political opponents," Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

Alexei Navalny is detained on Russia return
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is pictured being detained at the passport control point at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on January 17, 2021. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images/Getty