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Putin warmly greeted Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at the start of talks Friday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, a public embrace of an ally who’s accused by the European Union of state-sponsored piracy over the forced landing of a Ryanair Holdings Plc jet and arrest of a dissident journalist.

“I’m very happy to see you,” Putin said, agreeing as Lukashenko belittled Western criticism of the airliner incident as “a surge of emotions.” The Kremlin leader called for strengthening economic ties between the allies, noting that a Russian-built nuclear plant that’s drawn EU criticism will begin operations in June. “The weather in Sochi is very good, we can go for a swim,” Putin said.

As the EU weighs escalating sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime and points the finger at Russia for its support of the former Soviet collective farm boss, the Kremlin sees an opportunity to bind Belarus even more tightly into its orbit.

“There is a growing assumption in both Europe and the United States that what happened could not have been done by Belarus alone, that Russia had some role to play,” said Oksana Antonenko, a director at Control Risks…

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