VLADIMIR Putin is proving a hard man to snub. The Russian leader was supposed to be the outcast, booted from the rich nations club and disinvited from the G8 party he was planning in the Olympic City, Sochi, his pride and joy. US-orchestrated efforts to isolate Russia over the Ukraine crisis saw Moscow ejected from the G8 and the summit shaved to a G7 in Brussels starting Wednesday. But when world leaders gather in France Friday to honour soldiers who waded ashore under Nazi fire on D-Day, Putin will be conspicuous by his presence.
And the leaders of France, Britain and Germany will not be fighting Putin on the beaches — they will be meeting him one-on-one. Even President Barack Obama, who has seen Putin trash his reset of relations with Russia, will have no choice but to confront a man he once compared to a bored schoolboy slumped at the back of the class. The public US line is that there is no way — given the blood Russia spilled on the eastern front in World War II — that it could be excluded from the D-Day commemorations.
Officials hasten to add however, that unlike French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama will not grant Putin the prestige of formal talks — despite speaking with him by phone several times since the Ukraine crisis erupted. The rivals will be at close quarters during an intriguing leader’s lunch in a French chateau which will also include Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and assorted European royals and at a ceremony on Sword Beach. “I am sure I will see him — he is going to be there,” Obama said Tuesday. ‘US hypocrisy’ -Eyeing a potential opportunity to exploit the different approaches of the US and its European allies, Putin gave an exclusive interview to French broadcasters Europe1 and TF1.
In it, he lavishly praised France’s tradition of taking an independent line from Washington on the international stage and talked up a supposed special relationship between Moscow and Paris. He also accused the US administration of hypocrisy in its “aggressive” attempts to isolate Russia and poured scorn on Obama’s reluctance to meet him. “It is his choice, I am ready for dialogue,” Putin said. “We have almost no military forces abroad yet look: everywhere in the world there are American military bases, American troops thousands of kilometres from their borders. They interfere in the interior affairs of this or that country. So it is difficult to accuse us of abuses.”
Hollande was the first major Western leader to break ranks, inviting Putin for evening talks on Thursday, despite already being booked to dine with Obama. The French leader will solve a tricky diplomatic problem by treating Obama to dinner in a Paris restaurant before squeezing in a late supper with Putin at his Elysee Palace restaurant. Cameron and Merckel both subsequently confirmed plans to meet the Russian leader, in moves some saw as further undermining US attempts to maintain maximum diplomatic pressure on Washington.
Western leaders, having watched Putin pull back his troops from the Ukrainian border and with a new government ready in Kiev, may be hoping there is an opening to de-escalate the situation through dialogue: Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris on Thursday. Britain and Germany have a lot to lose if the crisis deepens — with substantial economic exposure to Russia — and France bucked US pressure to cancel the sale of two helicopter carrier ships to Russia. Putin meanwhile has signalled that if Europe won’t have him, others will. He concluded a landmark energy deal with China last month.
Another G7 nation — Japan — hedging against rising Chinese power, is expected to welcome Putin later this year. Senior US officials argued earlier this year that throwing Russia out of the G8 was a potent punishment given the Russian leader’s quest for international respect and relish for global powerbroking. But they appear to be taking Putin’s busy week in their stride and insist everyone is singing from the same sheet. They noted that Hollande had also shown support for Ukraine by inviting Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko to D-Day commemorations.
Obama has called on Putin to meet with the new leader and has pledged to speak bluntly to the Russian. “He can make a decision, that, having now begun to pull back his troops directly on the border, he also exerts his influence to get these separatist elements to stand down,” Obama said. “He can meet with the president-elect of Ukraine, recognise that was a legitimate election.” “That’s what I will tell him if I see him publicly. That’s what I have told him privately. “I would expect and hope that David Cameron and Francois Hollande would emphasise those same points to him.”
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