A Russian court freed anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny from jail Friday pending the appeal of his conviction on embezzlement charges.

The unexpected move came just a day after Navalny, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was sentenced to five years in prison, a punishment that crystallized the crude extent to which Putin's regime would go to silence critics and squelch democratic dissent.

So why the about-face?

There are three basic theories about what the Kremlin is up to. The first — suggested by Navalny himself — is that the government was pressured into backtracking by public outrage at Navalny's conviction. Several thousand supporters gathered at Manezhnaya Square next to the Kremlin after the sentencing Thursday, chanting "Freedom!" and "Putin is a thief!"

Navalny said his release was a victory for "people power." His conviction, he added, "had been vetted by the presidential administration — but when people came out on Manezhnaya, they rushed to go back on that decision."

However, that was not the official reason prosecutors gave for the unusual — some say unprecedented — request to spring him. They told the judge that Navalny, who is a candidate for mayor in Moscow, should be free to exercise his right to campaign until a decision is made on his appeal.

That sets up the second theory for Navalny's sudden turn of fortune. Putin's government is confident that its man in Moscow, acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, will win the election, but fear that voters won't consider the victory legitimate unless Sobyanin faces credible opposition. "That calculation — more than the street protests — appears to have been the deciding factor in the prosecutors' motion," says Will Englund at The Washington Post.

The third theory is a twist on the second. Daniel Sandford at BBC News argues that leaders in the Kremlin are looking far beyond Moscow's Sept. 8 mayoral vote. The ultimate goal here, Sandford says, is to defuse Navalny as a threat to Putin, and then get rid of him for good.

Perhaps the most convincing explanation is that Russia's men of power want to do three things — discredit Alexei Navalny, show his lack of support, and then get him out of the way.

This they would achieve by first convicting him of a corruption offense, second, freeing him to fight an election and lose, and third, jailing him again. [BBC News]