In a winter military coat trimmed with fur, Alexander Lukashenko stepped out of his white presidential helicopter for a morning of geopolitical theater. His presidential limousine quickly delivered him to his waiting generals as aides and heavily armed bodyguards fluttered around him, shivering in the icy rain.

The strongman leader of Belarus was visiting a military training site Thursday and watched Russian and Belarusian forces conduct joint exercises, with Sukhoi fighter bombers streaking across the sky and heavy artillery pounding a distant snow-covered target about 100 miles (161 kilometers) inside of Belarus’ southern border with Ukraine.

Yet, only a day later, Lukashenko was sitting meekly in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, no longer the swaggering supreme commander but more an obedient pupil seeking instruction and help from his master.