Petro Poroshenko's Normandy ascent
- 5 June 2014
Ukraine's president-elect takes his place alongside world leaders at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Could this be the start of a resolution to the Ukrainian crisis?
Friday will be a landmark day for Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko, as he travels to France to take part in ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the World War Two Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Normandy.
More than 75,000 British, Canadian and other Commonwealth troops participated in the D-Day battle, which eventually turned the tide against Germany after four years of fighting on the western front. They were joined by soldiers from the United States and a Free French contingent to form an Allied invasion force.
US President Barack Obama, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are also due to attend the ceremonies, along with a number of other world leaders from countries involved in World War Two, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin has long minimised the role of the United States, Great Britain and France in the war effort. It focuses instead on remembering its far greater losses - the nearly 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians who perished during the war.
In leading the Soviet Union to victory and attempting to legitimise his harsh rule, Russian leader Josef Stalin turned the war effort into primarily a Russian struggle, one that is still celebrated every May. (Indeed, official use of World War Two nostalgia is a hallmark of the Putin era.)
The sacrifices of other Soviet ethnic groups were less noted, despite the fact that Ukraine and Belarus suffered proportionately much greater losses than did ethnic Russians. According to official Ukrainian data, between 8 million and 14 million Ukrainians lost their lives. Of the 42 million people living in Ukraine before the war, only 27 million were alive in 1945. Many Soviet generals were Ukrainian, and the country Ukraine was the largest contributor to the industrial resources of the USSR.
The D-Day observances carry current international significance as well. Shunned by Western leaders after his invasion of Ukraine, Mr Putin will be meeting some of his counterparts for the first time since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.
French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that having Mr Putin attend the event is in "the natural order of things."
He said he "can't see why" the president of the Russian people, who lost millions in the fight against Nazism, would be prevented from taking part in the commemoration.
French President Francois Hollande will hold separate dinners with Mr Obama and Mr Putin, since the US president refuses to meet the Kremlin leader. Mr Putin will also meet British Prime Minister David Cameron and Ms Merkel, who are likely to express their opposition to Russian policies.
The Normandy ceremonies also may provide an opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough in the hostile relationship between Ukraine and Russia, whose governments are barely talking.
Russia's seizure of Crimea has been accompanied by a vicious propaganda campaign against Kiev, which labeled the interim Ukrainian government as a "fascist junta".
Indeed, in the past Mr Putin has denied that Ukraine was even a separate country. In December 2012, he said in an interview that Soviet Union could have won in WW2 even without Ukraine as a member of USSR, "because we are the 'winner state'". He also claimed erroneously that the biggest losses in war were suffered by the Russian Federation.
In the face of recent Western pressure, however, Mr Putin has softened his tone. He offered cautious acceptance of Mr Poroshenko's electoral victory on May. Although Mr Putin's press service has officially stated he has no intentions to meet with Ukrainian president this week, both have indicated some informal face time could occur.
The big winner in Normandy this week undoubtedly will be Mr Poroshenko. His inclusion is a symbol of the acceptance by Western democracies of Ukraine's aspirations to be a part of Europe's political and security structures, no matter what difficulties lay ahead. His presence is a slap at Mr Putin for Russia's annexation of Crimea, its meddling in Ukraine's regions and the Kremlin's efforts to suppress Mr Poroshenko's election.
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who lost the recent election, said that Mr Putin's actions united the Ukrainian people and brought Ukraine, the biggest part of it that survived, closer to Europe.
"Adding Crimea to Russia means that Vladimir Putin lost Ukraine once and for all," she said.
Finally, Mr Poroshenko's participation in the Normandy remembrance is a long-overdue recognition of the losses his country suffered seven decades ago - indeed, a recognition of Ukraine itself.
The events in the three months since the Maidan protests in Kiev brought down the Yanukovych regime have showed that Ukraine is not a ghost country, as many people in its huge eastern neighbour believed.
As one Russian activist recently wrote on a Radio Echo Moscow internet forum: "Remarkably, 70 years of the Soviet Union did not suppress a Ukrainian identity that thrives for democratic changes, and we in Russia didn't know how they developed for the 23 since the breakup of the Soviet Union."
"How could we miss," he concludes, "an entirely whole separate country at our borders?"