CAEN, France - World leaders gathered Friday to mark 70 years since the historic D-Day invasion of France that hastened the end of World War II and this year is taking place against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis.
At ceremonies on the beaches of northern France, where the biggest amphibious assault in history was launched in 1944, heads of state, royalty and prime ministers rubbed shoulders with hundreds of veterans, now in their 90s, who risked their lives to liberate Europe from Nazism.
‘This day, which began in chaos and fire, would end in blood and tears, tears and pain, tears and joy at the end of 24 hours that changed the world and forever marked Normandy,’ French President Francois Hollande said as he opened the ceremonies. Dignitaries - including Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who at the age of 88 is making a now rare foreign trip, and sparring world leaders US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin - will have lunch together at a grand chateau before heading to the beaches for a solemn international ceremony.
Around 1,800 veterans from Britain, the United States, France, Canada but also Russia and Poland, will honour the sacrifice of thousands of their comrades who fell on D-Day, many of them marking the occasion for the last time given their advanced age.
The D-Day ceremonies will give world leaders feuding over the Ukraine crisis a rare common purpose but the diplomatic wrangling over the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War started in earnest on Thursday and was set to continue throughout the anniversary. Putin has been in the diplomatic deep-freeze since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and held his first meeting with Western leaders since then - a bilateral with Britain’s David Cameron and a late-night meal with French President Francois Hollande.
Paris was the centre of a frenzied bout of meal-time diplomacy late on Thursday, as Hollande gobbled down a rushed dinner with Obama before hosting the Russian leader for ‘supper’ at the Elysee Palace. Cameron said he had left Putin in no doubt as to the West’s demands over Ukraine in what he described as ‘a meeting with a very clear and firm set of messages.’
‘Russia needs to properly recognise and work with this new president. We need de-escalation. We need to stop arms and people crossing the border,’ Cameron said. ‘The status quo, the situation today, is not acceptable and it needs to change.’
Obama was not scheduled to meet Putin officially but told reporters after a meeting of the group of seven rich countries in Brussels that he had ‘no doubt that I’ll see Mr Putin.’ ‘Should we have the opportunity to talk, I’ll deliver the same message as I have throughout this crisis. ‘If Russia’s provocations continue, it’s clear from our discussions here the G7 nations are ready to impose additional costs.’
The G7 meeting was to have been an expanded G8 hosted by Putin in his flagship Black Sea resort of Sochi but Russia was expelled from the club as punishment for the annexation of Crimea and perceived meddling in Ukraine. For his part, Putin has stressed that he does not wish to avoid anyone and may hold talks with Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko.
However, the Kremlin strongman has issued a defiant and robust riposte to the West’s accusations, rejecting claims of military intervention in Ukraine and accusing Washington of aggressively seeking to isolate Moscow on the world stage. The diplomatic back-and-forth came as the situation in Eastern Ukraine threatened to deteriorate further, with Kiev admitting it had lost control of three key checkpoints on its border with Russia following insurgent attacks.
Poroshenko, who will be officially inaugurated on Saturday after romping to victory in presidential polls on March 25, is poised to unveil a peace plan for his war-torn country that he will discuss with world leaders in northern France. Away from the wining and dining world leaders, the majority of the D-Day veterans marked the occasion in a quiet and unassuming fashion, resplendent in their military uniforms and medals.
At the tender age of 89, one former Scottish paratrooper commemorated the anniversary in rather more energetic fashion, parachuting to the same place he landed 70 years ago, this time strapped to the back of a Red Devil expert for safety.
Dressed from head to toe in a bright red jumpsuit, Jock Hutton sprang eagerly from his Cessna Caravan from 5,000 feet - 10 times the height from which he jumped on that historic night in 1944 - touched down on the grass near Britain’s Prince Charles and made jokes to the waiting media. ‘At my age, life tends to get a wee bit boring. So you’ve got to grab at any chance at excitement.’ ‘I was hoping there’d be some Calvados.’