MOSCOW — He may be the Kremlin’s closest ally, but his loyalty remains in doubt.
When Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the eccentric and brutal leader of Belarus, forced down a European passenger jet on Sunday to arrest a dissident, he ushered in a new and even more brittle phase in one of the post-Soviet region’s most convoluted and consequential relationships: the one between Mr. Lukashenko and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The two are increasingly leaning on each other in the face of conflict with the West, but they have sharply diverging interests. Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled for 26 years, relies on his iron grip on his country to assure his survival. Mr. Putin wants to expand Russian influence in Belarus, undermining Mr. Lukashenko’s authority in the process.
Now, with a summit meeting with President Biden looming in June, Mr. Putin faces a choice over how much political capital to expend to continue supporting Mr. Lukashenko, whose commandeering of the Ryanair plane has complicated the Kremlin’s efforts to smooth relations with the West. Russian officials and pro-Kremlin news outlets have taken Mr. Lukashenko’s side in the furor, but Mr. Lukashenko’s leading Belarusian opponents believe that the Kremlin’s support is only skin deep.
“In the Russian Foreign Ministry, in the Kremlin, I think that people can’t stand Lukashenko,” Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said in a telephone interview. “But at the same time, since there’s not anyone more pro-Russian, they prefer to keep Lukashenko for now.”
Roman Protasevich — who had been on a Belarusian list of “terrorists” because he co-founded a social-media outlet that galvanized and organized last year’s protests.
On Monday, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told journalists in his regular daily briefing that he could not comment on the Ryanair incident. “It is up to the international authorities to assess the case,” he said.
It took another 24 hours for the Kremlin to formulate its final message; Belarus’s actions were “in line with international regulations,” Mr. Peskov said on Tuesday.
as directed by E.U. leaders who voiced outrage over what they called Mr. Lukashenko’s “hijacking.” But speaking in a marble-paneled hall of the Minsk House of Government, Mr. Lukashenko was defiant, claiming that a bomb threat against the plane had arrived from Switzerland.
“Don’t you cast blame on me!” Mr. Lukashenko thundered, jabbing his finger into the air. “I acted legally defending my people, and it will also be thus in the future.”
In Moscow, Mr. Lukashenko is widely seen as a frustrating and fickle partner. Despite his reliance on the Kremlin, for instance, he still has not recognized as valid the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which many Russians see as Mr. Putin’s crowning foreign policy achievement.
“It’s a pretty serious mistake to think that Moscow can snap its fingers to solve its problems in Minsk,” said Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat who resigned last year in protest against Mr. Lukashenko’s policies. “Lukashenko will try to avoid further dependence on Moscow in every possible way.”
Andrei Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow research institute co-founded by the Russian Foreign Ministry, likened Mr. Lukashenko to the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, another difficult Kremlin ally.
“You’d think: The regime was saved, and he should have paid,” Mr. Kortunov said of Mr. Lukashenko. “But we’re not seeing that.”
Continuing to prop up Mr. Lukashenko could be costly for Mr. Putin, Mr. Kortunov warned. As Mr. Putin prepares for a summit meeting with President Biden scheduled to take place in Geneva on June 16, Russian officials have telegraphed that they want to lower tensions with the United States. One factor is domestic politics: Amid protests and discontent over economic stagnation, the Kremlin faces a public disapproving of foreign adventurism.
“The social contract of, ‘We won’t give you sausage, but we’ll make Russia a great power’ — this no longer works,” Mr. Kortunov said, describing Mr. Putin’s approach. “He understands that he needs to change the agenda. He won’t win any more with foreign policy.”
Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents are now pushing for the United States and Europe to enact more sanctions against Belarus that would further isolate him and perhaps provoke a split in the elite. Ms. Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader, spent nearly 40 minutes on the phone earlier this week with Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, her aide, Mr. Viacorka, said.
“When the Belarusian issue is discussed in the context of the Russian one, it becomes impossible to solve,” Mr. Viacorka said.