* Obama, Hollande, Putin to salute 70th D-Day anniversary
* Stakes high, West hopes Putin to recognise Ukraine leader
By John Irish
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, FRANCE, June 6 World leaders
and veterans gather by the beaches of Normandy on Friday to mark
the 70th anniversary of the Allied D-Day landings that helped
turn the tables in World War Two, with host France hoping the
event will bring a thaw in the Ukraine crisis.
Wreaths, parades, parachute-landings and fireworks will be
staged in honour of history's largest amphibian assault on June
6, 1944 when 160,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops waded
ashore to confront Nazi Germany's forces, hastening its defeat.
French President Francois Hollande will be joined at the
commemorations by 17 leaders including U.S. President Barack
Obama, Britain's David Cameron, Canada's Stephen Harper,
Germany's Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin of Russia.
But while the unity of allies and their bloody sacrifices
will be the big theme of the D-Day remembrance, the government
leaders will be sounding each other out in private on the worst
security challenge in Europe since the Cold War: Ukraine.
Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and the current
standoff in eastern Ukraine between government forces and
pro-Russian separatists have driven Russia's relations with the
United States and European Union to a post-Cold War low.
French diplomats say Hollande hopes to get Putin to at least
shake the hand of Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko on
the sidelines of the ceremonies, in what could represent a first
step in defusing tensions.
Putin, who has said he is open to meeting both Obama and
Poroshenko while in France, has yet to recognise the legitimacy
of the Ukrainian leader who is set to be sworn in on Saturday.
At a Group of Seven (G7) summit of world leaders in Brussels
on Thursday, Hollande called the D-Day tribute "an important
occasion to express gratitude and fraternity.
"But it is also a major international event which should
serve the interests of peace," Hollande added, evoking the
diplomatic challenges under the surface of the ceremonies.
The G7 summit - to which Putin was not invited because of
Western anger over Russia's intervention in Ukraine - was
intended "to speak with a single voice ... above all on
Ukraine," Hollande said.
Obama told reporters on Thursday that Russia would face new
sanctions if it fails to recognise Ukraine's new government and
does not try to calm violence from militants in the east of
Russia's fellow former Soviet neighbour.
"There is a path in which Russia has the capacity to engage
directly with President Poroshenko now. He should take it,"
Obama said. "If he does not - if he continues a strategy of
undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine, then we have no choice
but to respond."
Further complicating the diplomatic meetings on Friday is
U.S. opposition to a 1.2 billion euro ($1.63 billion) French
contract to sell two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia.
The U.S. government says the deal sends the wrong message to
Russia at a time of economic sanctions imposed by Western states
on Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine.
Putin's relations with Ukraine as well as with the European
Union and the United States have been tense since pro-Western
protesters ousted a Moscow-friendly Ukrainian president from
power in February and Russia then seized Crimea.
Obama and Hollande dined together in Paris on Thursday
evening and discussed ways of easing the Ukraine crisis before
Hollande held a second, separate dinner with Putin.
The separate meals showed the lengths to which French
officials have gone to keep the estranged Obama and Putin apart
in Paris, at U.S. request, before the D-Day commemorations.
($1 = 0.7345 Euros)
(Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Mark Heinrich)