Outspoken Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny says he will return to Russia this weekend after spending almost five months in Germany to receive emergency medical care to survive a poison attack.
The opposition politician's January 13 announcement on social media sets up a potentially dramatic new showdown between the Kremlin and Navalny, who is one of President Vladimir Putin's most prominent foes and could face prison following his return.
"The question 'to return or not' never stood before me as I didn't leave on my own. I ended up in Germany in an intensive-care box. On January 17, Sunday, I will return home on a Pobeda flight," he said in a tweet on January 13, referring to a Russian airline whose name means "victory."
Navalny fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on August 20 and was treated and placed in an induced coma in a Siberian hospital before being transferred to a world-class facility in Germany.
Lab tests in three European countries, confirmed by the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, have established that Navalny was poisoned with a toxin from the Russian-made Novichok group of Soviet-era nerve agents. The findings led the European Union to impose sanctions on six Russian officials and a state research institute.
Russian authorities have claimed that no trace of poison was found in Navalny's body before he was airlifted to Germany, and have refused to open a criminal investigation into the incident. Navalny has blamed Putin for his poisoning.
Navalny said that his convalescence from the ordeal had reached a point where he felt it was time to return home.
"When I first got out of the hospital, I did this exercise. The hardest part for me. You have to stand, then lie on the floor, then get up again. It was very, very difficult. My maximum was three times. Then I had to rest," he said in a post on Instagram.
"This morning I did push-ups, squats and even a few burps (hell of a thing). Then I realized that the moment I had been waiting for had come -- perhaps I am almost healthy and can finally return home," he added.
Late last month Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) told Navalny to return immediately from Germany or face jail in Russia for violating the terms of a suspended prison sentence relating to a 2014 fraud conviction and of evading criminal inspectors -- a case widely seen by international activists as politically motivated.
Navalny's probationary period for his suspended 3 1/2-year prison term expired on December 30.
The suspended sentence could be changed to a real jail term if the alleged violations are determined by Russian officials to be valid.
At the time, Navalny, who had vowed to return home at some point after he recovered, said that the demand showed that the Russian government was accepting that he was poisoned.
On January 12, Navalny said he had received a notice saying the FSIN had asked a court to switch his suspended prison sentence to jail time.
"Putin is so enraged that I survived the poisoning that he ordered the FSIN to demand that the court changes my suspended sentence into actual time in jail," Navalny tweeted on January 12.
"This despite the fact that my suspended sentence ended on December 30," he said in the message that also contained the screenshot of an official document of the FSIN's motion registered at a Moscow court.
According to the website of Moscow's Simonov district court, the move to change Navalny's suspended sentence had been registered on January 11.
The official reason to change the sentence is shown in the document as "due to a failure to carry out imposed obligations, evading the payment of compensations, or committing another crime."
Exiled former oligarch and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose prosecution, and decade in prison on financial-crimes charges he denies, are among the hallmarks of Putin's long rule, said he hopes Navalny will remain free upon returning to his homeland.
"I hope he will be more fortunate and his return will not result in a ten-year imprisonment or a new poisoning for him," Khodorkovsky said in an interview with Open Media, an online investigative resource funded by the Kremlin foe and former oil tycoon.