Vladimir Putin was watched closely during his D-Day commemoration visit. For the first time since the start of the Ukraine crisis, the Russian president met directly with his critics in the West.
Would Putin show up? Or would he call it off at the last minute? Who should sit next to him on the podium? And who would even want to? Rarely has such a diplomatic fuss been made over a state visit as over the Russian president's visit to Normandy on Friday (06.06.2014).
Since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, Putin has been a political persona non grata in the West, with his country excluded from the group of major industrialized countries until further notice. Putin likely took part in the D-Day commemorations in order to come out of isolation. But he paid a price in the form of a number of private meetings with Western leaders throughout the day.
First up was British Prime Minister David Cameron, who read him the riot act. Cameron, who refused to even shake Putin's hand, said he gave the Russian president a number of clear and firm messages.
Shortly before the official celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings began, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also met with Putin. Although the two greeted each other with a handshake, images of the conversation were sobering, tense and uncomfortable. Afterward, it was said that the chancellor asked Putin to take "responsibility" for the situation in eastern Ukraine.
At noon, French President Francois Hollande stood in front Chateau de Benouville and welcomed world leaders to lunch. When Putin's car pulled up, the tension was palpable. But the French president simply led his guest inside, leaving Prime Minister Manuel Valls to handle the rest of the guests.
Meanwhile, Hollande moderated a meeting between Putin and Ukraine's president-elect Petro Poroshenko. Moscow has yet to officially recognize the presidential elections in Ukraine and Poroshenko's victory. Observers saw the conversation, therefore, as a minor success, especially since both sides called for an end to violence in Ukraine's embattled eastern territories.
'Informal exchange' with Obama
Even US President Barack Obama spoke with Putin, for at least 10 minutes, maybe 12, maybe even twice. In any case, the White House was quick to point out that their meeting was merely an informal exchange, nothing official. And while journalists were still trying to figure out who had talked with whom and for how long, the guests of honor left for the official ceremony on the beach at Ouistreham.
When Obama drove up, Putin dutifully applauded and then continued speaking with Merkel, this time quite relaxed. During his speech, Hollande praised the "courage of the Red Army," which had made a "significant contribution" to victory over Nazi Germany - obviously an important gesture for the difficult guest from Moscow.
Then, for a brief moment, tensions with Russia seemed to evaporate completely. Obama and Putin weren't sitting next to each other on the podium - organizers had made sure of that. That wouldn't do for the director of the big event, who managed to show the two leaders side by side in a split screen on the large display. The hundreds of visitors spontaneously clapped and laughed. Even Putin cracked a smile - if only briefly.