Pobeda flight DP936 was a few minutes into its descent towards Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, where thousands of supporters of poisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny were waiting to meet him on his return to Russia, when the flight captain said he could not land as planned.
There were “technical difficulties”, he said, before adding, audibly amused: “Instead we will calmly make our way to Sheremetyevo airport … where the weather is great!”
It was the first sign to those on board that Navalny’s return from Berlin, where he had been treated since August after being attacked in Russia with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok, was not going smoothly.
After landing, he sat in the plane, looking out of the window onto a dark, snow-covered runaway and a handful of airport workers in fluorescent vests, holding his wife Yulia’s hand in silence.
His lawyer, also on board, had said she did not know whether the Kremlin’s most vocal and effective critic would be arrested.
The 44-year-old is accused of flouting the terms of a suspended sentence for embezzlement in a case that he says was trumped up but could see him jailed for 3-1/2 years.