Russian secret services have allegedly carried out a "rendition" by plucking a Russian opposition figure, Leonid Razvozzhayev, from a Kiev street in broad daylight last Saturday and transferring him to Lefortovo prison in Moscow.
The alleged kidnapping occurred just as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was heading to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a variety of bilateral issues, including the price Russia charges Ukraine for natural gas.
The episode has Ukrainian human rights activists in an uproar over what looks like the completely illegal seizure of a foreign national on Ukrainian soil, and it has left many Russian experts fearful that the much-predicted, full-scale, no-holds-barred crackdown against the anti-Kremlin opposition has begun.
"When you think of the things that have happened in the past few months, it's already a changed environment. Many people are already in jail, and every day brings some fresh shock like this kidnapping," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.
"Putin and his government are being drawn into a vicious cycle of repression against people who defy him. I can't see how this could be stopped now," she adds.
Ukrainian media reports say Mr. Razvozzhayev was applying for refugee assistance at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Kiev on Saturday. He left the building for lunch, and never returned, although he had left his things in the office.
"We are concerned that a person has disappeared just in the middle of the day, and nobody knows what happened and how," Oleksandra Makovska, spokeswoman of Ukraine’s UNHCR office, told journalists.
On Monday, it became clear that Razvozzhayev was in a Russian jail. The official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported that he had already "confessed to organizing mass disorder together with his boss and other opposition members" in a purported ten-page document that has not been made public.
Russian authorities argue that Razvozzhayev gave himself up voluntarily and penned a full confession about his part in a vast anti-Kremlin conspiracy. But footage posted by the Russian Internet journal LifeNews Monday shows Razvozzhayev being led from a Moscow police building Monday and pushed into a paddy wagon, audibly shouting to reporters that he had been kidnapped and tortured.
In a blog written when he was already on the run, on Oct. 19, posted by the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Razvozzhayev wrote: "If, in the nearest future, I should be arrested or anything bad happens to me, do not believe anything [officials] say about me. I am of sound mind, and sober memory, even if my living conditions at the moment are not the best."
Razvozzhayev, an aide to opposition parliamentarian Ilya Ponomaryov, was wanted by Russia's powerful Investigative Committee for questioning in connection with a developing case against his friend, left-wing street agitator Sergei Udaltsov, who is charged with trying to overthrow Mr. Putin using funds provided by the former Soviet republic of Georgia and exiled anti-Kremlin tycoons in London.
The allegations against Mr. Udaltsov were made in a "documentary" film broadcast early this month on the state-run NTV network, which included accusations that he was plotting to seize the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, organize terrorist actions in Moscow, and commit other revolutionary disorders.
The secretly-filmed tapes that supposedly show Udaltsov conspiring with Georgian emissary Givi Targamadze also appear to show Razvozzhayev as a participant. The Investigative Committee ordered him arrested last week, but he had already fled to Ukraine.
"This is completely outrageous," says Mr. Ponomaryov, who has been stripped of his Duma voice and vote by the pro-Kremlin majority and could be facing the same fate as his parliamentary colleague, Gennady Gudkov, who was expelled from the Duma last month for refusing to break off his ties with the protest movement.
"Razvozzhayev is a good man, he worked for me, and he worked as an organizer of the Left Front," which is Udaltsov's leftist coalition, he says. "I fear we are all facing similar criminal proceedings, with possible long jail terms. We're ready for that."
"But I begin to worry where it will end? Are they going to return to the traditions of the 1930s, when the Stalinist secret police invented vast, phony conspiracies and went on a killing spree of political dissidents?"
In Ukraine, which faces parliamentary elections next Sunday that Mr. Yanukovych's Party of Regions seems set to win, experts say Razvozzhayev's seizure is a sign that Russian secret services can do anything they want on the streets of Kiev.
"I doubt that such an operation could take place without the secret agreement of Ukrainian leaders," says Olexander Sushko, an analyst with the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev.
"It's particularly significant that this happened just before the elections, and on the day Yanukovych was visiting Russia to talk with Putin. The official line is that Razvozzhayev surrendered voluntarily, but everybody knows he was hijacked on the street.... It has the look of a classic gangster operation, and nothing in common with a civilized extradition process, no matter how you view it," Mr. Sushko adds.
Udaltsov is under house arrest, but one of his top aides, Konstantin Lebedev, was arrested last week and is currently in prison. The capture and purported confession of Razvozzhayev suggests that Udaltsov's arrest may now be imminent.
"Sergei Udaltsov is finding himself besieged right now," says Ms. Lipman. "His friends and close associates are in custody, and they are all facing very harsh potential jail terms," of up to 10 years.
"I'm a liberal, I don't share Udaltsov's left-wing philosophy. But I can see what they're doing to him, and it's clearly aimed at intimidating everyone who tries to protest.... It's also clear that if the economy turns down, and there should be social pain, the authorities do not want an effective and courageous street organizer like Udaltsov on the loose. It's all very sinister," she adds.