WASHINGTON – Complicating the West’s efforts to isolate Russia, the Kremlin announced Thursday that Vladimir V. Putin will join President Obama and European leaders in France next month for a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that hastened the end of World War II.
The June 6 commemoration would mark the first time Putin and Western leaders have come face-to-face since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine. The United States and Europe have condemned Russia’s provocations.
Still, leaders from Germany and France publicly welcomed Putin’s decision to attend the observance at Normandy, raising questions about the effectiveness of recent efforts to ostracize the Russian president over Ukraine. And while the White House said Obama would not meet one-on-one with Putin, U.S. officials did not appear to be seeking to stop him from attending.
“We would not expect France to dis-invite Russia from this historic event commemorating World War II because of what’s taking place in Ukraine,” White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said. “The events in Normandy on June 6 are focused on remembering the sacrifices of all our World War II veterans.” Millions of Russian lives were lost in the war against Germany.
International gatherings such as the D-Day anniversary are often occasions where world leaders find themselves in the presence of their foes. Obama shook hands with then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at a regional summit in 2009. He also exchanged a handshake with Cuban leader Raúl Castro last year while both attended a memorial service in South Africa for Nelson Mandela.
Meanwhile, a day after claiming to have withdrawn thousands of Russian troops from Ukraine’s border, Putin presided over East bloc military maneuvers Thursday that included tests of Russia’s nuclear forces and live firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
NATO leaders said they had yet to see any evidence of Russia having moved the 40,000-plus troops amassed on Ukraine’s border. And despite Putin’s contention that Thursday’s exercises had been planned since November, the unexpected display of the former Soviet empire’s surviving destructive powers was likely to ratchet up tensions in the region.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said via Twitter that alliance officials “haven’t seen any – any – indication of troops pulling back.”
Wednesday, Putin appealed to pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone their planned Sunday referendum on whether to demand greater autonomy within Ukraine or secede and be annexed by Russia.
But a separatist leader in Donetsk, capital of the restive region with a large Russian-speaking population, said the referendum would be held despite Putin’s “respected” advice.