PARIS World leaders meet in Normandy on Friday for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, but with Europe in its worst security crisis since the Cold War, the event will be a backdrop to urgent diplomacy over Ukraine.
Some 18 national leaders will attend ceremonies along with 3,000 veterans along France's northern coast where Allied forces landed on June 6, 1944 in a sea-borne invasion that sped up the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Barack Obama and - thanks to a last-minute invitation from France - Ukraine's president-elect Petro Poroshenko will be among the leaders gathering for a closed-door lunch on Friday.
"Yes, this is a day about the veterans and remembering those that died for basic freedoms, but it's also an opportunity to look ahead and de-escalate the Ukraine crisis," said one French diplomat, who declined to be identified.
Putin is due to meet France's President Francois Hollande, Germany's Angela Merkel and Britain's David Cameron on the sidelines of the events - his first encounter with Western leaders since Moscow's annexation of the Crimea in March.
No separate meeting between Putin and Obama is planned as yet but French organisers say the luxurious 18th century Chateau de Benouville, where lunch will be prepared by four Michelin star chefs, will have rooms ready for bilateral sessions.
Speaking to French radio station Europe 1 on Wednesday, Putin offered to meet Obama in France.
"There is no reason to think President Obama does not want to talk to the Russian President," he said. "It's his choice. I am ready for dialogue."
Hollande is due to meet with Obama at a restaurant in central Paris and then host Putin at the presidential palace for a late supper on Thursday, the eve of D-Day.
"I'm meeting President Obama and President Putin. It's late in the day, but the objective is that it is useful. What's at stake is Ukraine, it's stability and it's security," Hollande told reporters in Poland on Wednesday, adding he would also try to enable dialogue between Putin and Ukraine's Poroshenko.
G7 SIDELINE MEETINGS
Having been excluded from the Group of Eight major powers for its seizure of Crimea and its part in the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, Russia was not included in the Group of Seven summit in Brussels this week.
Relations between Russia and the Ukraine as well as with Europe and the United States are in tatters after protesters pushed a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president from power in February and Russia then annexed Crimea.
Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border and warned it could send them in to protect Russian-speakers in the east, while Poroshenko and Ukraine's pro-Western government have ignored Moscow's demands for an end to Kiev's military operation against pro-Russian separatists.
One Russian diplomat said D-Day could be an opportunity to replicate a constructive meeting between Putin and Obama at the Saint Petersburg G20 meeting last year, where the two men came to an agreement over destroying Syria's chemical arsenal.
Aside from the diplomatic activity, Putin, whose country lost more than 20 million people during World War Two, will join leaders including Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski for a display marking D-Day on Sword Beach.
Obama will give a speech in the morning at the U.S. cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach where about 2,500 U.S. troops died.
With the youngest survivors of the landings now in their late 80s, the events carry extra significance.
(Editing by Tom Heneghan)