Mr. Putin has long been openly impatient with Mr. Lukashenko, a leader he is said to view as erratic and unreliable, and who has sought to keep Moscow at arm’s length to preserve Belarus’ sovereignty and also his own unbridled powers. But, wary of seeing a fellow strongman toppled by protests, Mr. Putin announced late last month that he had formed a “reserve force” of Russian security officers ready to intervene in Belarus if the “situation gets out of control.”
The Kremlin has not yet deployed the force, but Russia has taken an increasingly active role in Belarus, sending in advisers to help Mr. Lukashenko and Russian journalists to fill jobs in state media left vacant by the resignation of local staffers who have sided with the protests. Russia, Mr. Putin said in August, “is certainly not indifferent to what is happening there.”
Mr. Putin made clear to Mr. Lukashenko on Monday that he expected progress toward the formation of a so-called Union State, a largely stillborn project that was agreed upon in the late 1990s but which Mr. Lukashenko has resisted implementing out of fear that he could end up being reduced to little more than a regional governor under Kremlin control.
In a blunt reminder of Belarus’ subservience to Russia in the past, and perhaps a warning of things to come, Moscow’s ambassador in Minsk last week presented Mr. Lukashenko with a leather-bound book containing historical maps showing Belarus when it was part of the Russian empire.
In his own remarks at the start of talks with Mr. Putin in Sochi, Mr. Lukashenko repeated what has become his favorite pitch for Russian support: His survival as leader is the only way to protect Belarus and also Russia from the machinations of the West. He claimed that NATO has been massing troops on his country’s border, something that the American-led military alliance has strongly denied.
At the end of the talks, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, declined to say whether the two presidents had discussed the timing of a possible new election. For the moment, Mr. Peskov said, Russia considers Mr. Lukashenko “the legitimate president of Belarus,” and “loves” all Belarusians, including protesters, as brothers.
Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.