President Putin and his closest ally Alexander Lukashenko met on Sunday for the first time since the Belarus leader helped end a mutiny by Wagner, in the biggest threat to Putin's more than two-decade rule.
It was an odd meeting filled with bizarre statements – here are five things you need to know…
Wagner are “in a bad mood”
Lukashenko told Putin he was keeping control of newly-arrived Wagner fighters in Belarus, but that they were itching to invade Poland.
“They are asking to go West, ask me for permission... to go on a trip to Warsaw, to Rzeszow," Lukashenko said to Putin, who smiled.
“But of course, I am keeping them in central Belarus, like we agreed.”
“We are controlling what is happening (with Wagner)," he said, adding: "They are in a bad mood.”
Earlier this week, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was filmed welcoming his fighters to the country in the wake of the failed rebellion against the Kremlin.
The exact numbers are unknown but at least nine convoys of men and material have been reported arriving in Belarus.
Poland has said it would move soldiers to the east of the country in response.
While the redeployment of the mercenaries is being closely watched in Kyiv, Andrii Yusov, a representative of HUR, told Kyiv Post earlier this week they are not present in sufficient numbers to attack Ukraine.
He said: “Even according to figures released by Prigozhin himself, there will be up to 10 thousand fighters in Belarus, which is not a significant number to form aggressive shock troops for attacking Ukrainian territories.”
Poland wants western Ukraine
Both Putin and Lukashenko often allege that Poland has territorial ambitions in Ukraine and wants to take the western part of the country for itself.
Despite having absolutely no basis in reality, Putin repeated the conspiracy theory just this Friday and Lukashenko gave it another airing today, accusing Poland of trying to “rip off a western chunk” of Ukraine.
In an even more surreal twist, he offered to defend western Ukraine from the imagined potential invasion, saying: “The secession of western Ukraine, the fragmentation of Ukraine and the transfer of land to Poland are unacceptable.
“And if the population of western Ukraine needs this, we will, of course, support them.”
Lukashenko showed Putin a map of "the deployment of Poland's armed forces to the borders of the Union State."— Maria Drutska 🇺🇦 (@maria_drutska) July 23, 2023
He pointed out the inadmissibility of a scenario where Poland captures the western lands of Ukraine: "The severing of Western Ukraine, the dismemberment of Ukraine, and… pic.twitter.com/hwGlq67Iao
Lukashenko also said plans to admit western Ukraine into NATO – an idea tentatively floated by some commentators but already largely dismissed – was in fact a plan already being considered by the west in an attempt to annex parts of Ukraine.
“The Americans support it,” he said without any evidence.
The counteroffensive has “failed”
Putin also said the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive to push back Russian forces from Ukraine has "failed.”
“There is no counteroffensive,” Lukashenko said, according to the TASS news agency before being interrupted by Putin: “There is one, but it has failed.”
Putin’s comments are a little premature given Ukraine’s summer offensive is still in its early stages.
Kyiv has admitted it is going slower than hoped and they expect a long slog to overcome entrenched Russian positions.
Five weeks into Kyiv's long-anticipated operation, much of the front appeared to be frozen. Presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said earlier this week: “Undoubtedly, this operation will be quite difficult, long and will take quite a lot of time.”
There has been some positive developments recently, with the commander of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine saying on Thursday: “All of the conditions needed for Ukraine to retake Bakhmut are in place.”
In an interview with BBC Ukraine on Thursday, Oleksandr Syrskyi said Russian forces were “semi-encircled” in the ruined city, a situation Kyiv’s forces “simply cannot help but take advantage of.”
What long table?
The Russian president appears to have overcome his strong aversion to potential germs acquired during the Covid pandemic which saw him repeatedly ridiculed for meeting officials separated by a comically long table.
Last week we had Putin & Macron at either end of an enormous table. Today we have Putin and his defence minister at an enormous table.— Simon Tierney (@tierneysimon) February 14, 2022
Enormous tables are an important tool in a dictator's arsenal...they create distance and mystique and make it really difficult to pass the salt pic.twitter.com/sRiWLPn3AH
Yet after today’s chinwag, both men met a crowd of people in Russia's Kronstadt town on Kotlin Island, in a rare walkabout for the longtime leaders.
Russia's Kommersant newspaper posted a video of Putin and Lukashenko posing for photographs with people, with bodyguards standing nearby.
Asked about quarantine rules which the Russian leader has been keeping up since the pandemic, Putin replied: "People are more important than quarantine."
"Putin" and Lukashenko talked to the crowd gathered outside The Naval cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Kronstadt, St. Petersburg.— Anton Gerashchenko (@Gerashchenko_en) July 23, 2023
"Putin" said he's not in quarantine and people are more important. pic.twitter.com/N5bU2Rd3M3
Security in the region
In a sign of the importance of the meeting, Putin said he had “changed some of my plans” so that talks with Lukashenko could last two days.
The Russian leader said the pair would discuss “security in our region” despite the main security issues being Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and everything that it has spawned, including the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
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