A bus ride across the runway apron and a brisk walk through the brightly lit terminal corridor was all the freedom Alexei Navalny was granted on his return to Russia before he was detained by police waiting for him at passport control.

The arrest of president Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic was met with uniform condemnation from western governments, with a number of EU states threatening to impose sanctions if the Kremlin did not release the 44-year-old campaigner.

Mr Navalny was returning from Berlin after recovering from an assassination attempt using novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union, in August. He and European governments have blamed the attack on the Kremlin, but Moscow has denied any involvement despite the use of the poison and claimed he could have been poisoned outside Russia.

He was arrested on Sunday evening for allegedly breaching the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence, which could see him jailed for up to three and a half years.

Lithuania’s foreign ministry said the country would “immediately raise issues concerning the EU’s possible response to the detention and persecution of Navalny, and new sanctions against Russia”.

“It seems that Navalny, who dared to challenge the government, has made another most unfortunate mistake. He has survived,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis, foreign minister.

Mr Navalny’s supporters say his arrest is designed to prevent him from campaigning ahead of critical parliamentary elections in September, with Mr Putin’s ruling party polling at record lows.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, described his detention as “unacceptable” and called for his immediate release.

Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, echoed that view. “It’s completely incomprehensible that he was arrested immediately after his arrival by the Russian authorities,” he said.

“Russia is, through its own constitution and through its international obligations bound to the principle of the rule of law and the protection of civil rights. These principles must of course apply to Alexei Navalny, too. He should be released immediately.”

Both Mike Pompeo, the outgoing US secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, president-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, condemned the arrest and called for his release.

“Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor see the need to commit violence against or wrongfully detain, political opponents,” Mr Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

The UK’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, called for Mr Navalny’s immediate release: “Rather than persecuting Mr Navalny, Russia should explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil,” he added.

The EU imposed sanctions on six officials it said were involved in the attack after western laboratories confirmed that Mr Navalny had been poisoned using a chemical weapon during a campaign visit to Siberia.

But some European politicians called on Brussels to do more.

Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, said: “A quick and unequivocal response at EU level is essential. Respecting citizens’ rights is the basis of democracy.”

Tomas Petricek, foreign minister of the Czech Republic, said he would “propose a discussion on possible sanctions” at a meeting of EU ministers, and accused Moscow of “violating international human rights treaties”.

Russia’s rouble, which is sensitive to western sanction threats, fell around 1.1 per cent against the euro in early trading on Monday.

Mr Navalny was separated from his wife and his lawyer at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and detained by officers before being transferred to a police station in the north of the city.

Russian authorities issued the arrest warrant after alleging that he had violated the terms of a suspended sentence by failing to appear at in-person meetings. A court was asked last week to change that sentence to a jail term.

The sentence relates to a 2014 fraud conviction that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled was politically motivated. Russia has also launched an investigation into new fraud allegations. If Mr Navalny is found guilty, he could be jailed for up to 10 years.

“I am not afraid,” Mr Navalny told reporters moments before he was detained. “I know I am right. I know that the criminal cases against me are fabricated.”

Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said western criticism of Mr Navalny’s detention was to “divert attention” from a crisis in liberal democracy.“We can see how they have jumped at yesterday’s news about Navalny’s return to Russia, and we can see how gladly the comments, which replicate one another, are being made,” he told reporters on Monday.