t is perfectly possible that Alexei Navalny, the nearest thing Russia has to a leader of the opposition, will one day be reported to have died in prison from some rare disease or unlikely accident. If not, then the Kremlin will almost certainly find some reason or other to detain him indefinitely. That, after all, has pretty much been the offer made to him by Vladimir Putin. The Russian authorities made it clear that if Mr Navalny dared to return to his motherland then he would be detained on arrival, his future bleak.
So it is to the credit of Mr Navalny and his wife Yulia that they defied the threats and returned home, his treatment in Germany completed. He escaped narrowly with his life, having been poisoned with novichok, a lethal nerve agent, by actors working directly or otherwise on the implicit wishes of Russia’s leaders, for that is how “deniable” business is conducted in Moscow these days.
Perhaps Mr Navalny has committed some offences and condoned financial irregularities – though he denies it. He is, after all, a Russian politician, and such activity tends to go with the territory. He is no saint, and he may not be an ideal poster boy for liberal values; yet he is all Russia has at the moment, and he represents something – an argument, an alternative, a challenge – that President Putin finds irksome. So much so, as we have seen, that he has been the subject of at least one attempt on his life, as well as constant harassment.