The physique language at this assembly was placing.
The host, Vladimir Putin, struck his standard commanding pose, legs wide-spread in his chair while Alexander Lukashenko leaned-in in direction of him, palms clasped and at occasions nearly beseeching.
The Belarusian chief was in Sochi to hunt Russia’s assist within the midst of the largest political disaster of his 26 years in energy.
Before the cameras, at the least, that’s what he acquired.
Vladimir Putin welcomed his visitor with heat smiles because the reliable president of Belarus – downplaying 5 weeks of mass road protests over claims of a rigged election as a mere “home occasion”.
The Kremlin’s fast precedence appears to be in stabilising the state of affairs throughout the border, attempting to maintain brotherly Belarus, broadly, in Moscow’s orbit and ensuring disgruntled Russians don’t get any concepts in regards to the effectiveness of mass protests.
For now, at the least, which means public backing for the person these protesters have turned on and who’s now busy positioning himself as probably the most loyal pal Moscow may have.
And, critically, he confirmed that Russia would stand by all commitments to its neighbour together with the promise of reinforcements ought to occasions on the bottom deteriorate.
“Lukashenko needs to scare off his opponents, by implying that in the event that they proceed to revolt, and issues go violent once more, they will be dealing not simply with him, however with Uncle Vladimir,” explains Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst based mostly in Minsk.
That level was double-underlined by the opening of a week-long joint army train in western Belarus on the identical day because the talks in Sochi. Mr Putin then introduced that there can be additional joint occasions “nearly each month” – one other signal that he won’t enable Alexander Lukashenko to be swept away by “individuals energy”.
But behind the scenes, some imagine Russian assist for the long-time ruler of Belarus is extra certified, even that the Kremlin believes he’s now a legal responsibility it could not belief, fatally weakened by the protests and unable to ship on any main guarantees.
“I believe they perceive that the harm to Lukashenko is past restore, and even when he can retain energy for a time, he is a lame duck,” Andrei Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council argues. “They ought to be considering of a managed transition, to interchange the president who misplaced his assist.”
It is believed the worth of Russia’s backing within the meantime may embrace some plum privatisation offers in Belarus, for instance, or progress on much less controversial financial integration plans, lengthy on maintain.
But after so many political U-turns by Mr Lukashenko within the run-up to elections – most notably a scandal over the arrest of 32 Russian mercenaries – Artyom Shraibman agrees that Moscow’s persistence has run out.
“Now shouldn’t be the time to place a gun to Lukashenko’s head and power him out by New Year. He is in a really emotional place, he would not hear,” Artyom Shraibman argues. “But I believe Putin can be hinting at a transition.”
In his public feedback, Vladimir Putin referred to Mr Lukashenko’s plan for constitutional reform as “logical” and rational, maybe signalling Moscow’s most popular path out of this disaster. The Belarusian chief has beforehand hinted a reform is perhaps adopted by early elections.
Such deal-making ignores the loud and protracted calls for of opposition voices who need Alexander Lukashenko to go instantly and for recent, honest elections to be held with all political prisoners launched.
But Moscow might choose that the protesters will finally be scared or annoyed into submission. It treats them just like the climate, Artyom Shraibman argues, you simply have to attend till the storm has handed.
In the meantime, the Kremlin could also be manoeuvring to nudge its outdated ally out in its personal method – as soon as it has recognized another that either side can belief.
“I do not suppose the Kremlin can be prepared to take a seat on its palms ready for Lukashenko to step down, for lengthy,” Andrei Kortunov warns. “They want some benchmarks. They will not be completely happy to see this final too lengthy.”