Could French D-Day Diplomacy Help Defuse the Ukraine Conflict?

French President Francois Hollande welcomes Queen Elizabeth II the day before the 70th Anniversary of D-Day on June 5, 2014 in Paris Photograph by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The French have a knack for solving tricky protocol problems. In 1475, King Louis XI halted a British invasion by negotiating a truce with England’s King Edward IV on a specially constructed bridge separating the parts of France under each monarch’s control. During Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War, France helped resolve a conflict over the shape of the negotiating table by having a circular table surrounded by smaller square tables.

Now it’s President François Hollande’s turn to show his diplomatic finesse.

As world leaders gather in France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the guest list includes Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose relationship with most other invitees has been severely strained by the crisis in Ukraine.

Hollande has joined other Western leaders in condemning Putin’s annexation of Crimea and supporting European Union sanctions against members of his inner circle. He also upped the ante on Putin by inviting Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko to the D-Day ceremonies. The newspaper Journal du Dimanche, citing French diplomatic sources, reports that during a phone call on May 30, Putin offered Hollande the option of uninviting him.

That, frankly, was out of the question. The Allies couldn’t have won World War II without Russia, which suffered more casualties than any other country. Many estimates put the number of Soviet military dead and missing at 10 million or more, with civilian losses pushing the total over 20 million. Poroshenko deserves to attend the ceremonies, too, since several million of the Soviet losses were Ukrainians.

Hollande has solved one protocol dilemma by scheduling two dinners this (Thursday) evening—one with President Barack Obama at 7 p.m. at a Paris restaurant and another with Putin later in the evening at the Elysée Palace. Separately, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have scheduled one-on-one talks with Putin while he’s in France.

That still leaves the June 6 lunch at a chateau near the Normandy beaches that will be attended by Putin and by Poroshenko. Merkel has commended Hollande for inviting Poroshenko in hopes of brokering a first meeting with Putin. According to an unnamed official at the Elysée quoted by Journal du Dimanche, France is hoping that the event will mark the beginning of a thaw in relations between Moscow and Kiev and that Putin “will be able to turn the page” on his conflict with the West.

Is that realistic? Investors seem optimistic. Russian stocks rebounded this week on hopes of reduced tension. “Contacts and dialogue are better than their absence,” Yuri Selyandin, a money manager at GHP Group in Moscow, told Bloomberg News.

Adding to market relief is a decision by Group of 7 countries to spare Russia further sanctions for the time being. The world’s leading industrial democracies will urge Russia to speed up withdrawal of troops from Ukraine’s border, while saying they are “ready to intensify targeted sanctions” in the absence of a peaceful settlement, according to a draft obtained by Bloomberg News.

France has economic reasons to hope for a rapprochement, including significant trade with Russia and a $1.7 billion contract to deliver helicopter warships to Moscow. Hollande’s double-dining plans with Obama and Putin have produced some snickering about his waistline. But if the D-Day commemoration leads to a dialogue between Moscow and Kiev and reduced tension with the West, he’ll deserve an extra helping of credit.

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