PARIS - Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Western leaders for the first time since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis when he attends a World War Two anniversary in France next month, the Russian ambassador to Paris said on Thursday.
US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among those due to attend the June 6 ceremony in Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings that helped turn the tide of the war against Nazi Germany.
Ambassador Alexander Orlov confirmed Putin's planned attendance in comments to BFM television, after France's president and defence minister both said the Russian leader - accused by the West of destabilising neighbouring Ukraine - was still welcome to come. "I have told Vladimir Putin, as representative of the Russian people, that he is welcome to attend the ceremony,"French President Francois Hollande said.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian went further, saying that cancelling Putin's invitation would be a historical insult. "It is in the order of things that (Putin) should be there,"he told BFM.
Moscow's relations with the West have worsened dramatically since Ukrainians toppled their pro-Russian president in February and Russia responded by annexing Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and massing troops on the country's eastern border.
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on dozens of Russians, and leaders of the Group of Seven leading nations pulled out of a summit with Putin next month in Sochi, where Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in February.
In the United States, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki made clear the World War Two commemorations were a separate issue. "Our current difference over Ukraine notwithstanding, the fact remains that the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union and many others united 70 years ago to defeat Nazism," she told a regular news briefing. "This was an historic victory and those who sacrificed to bring peace deserve the be honoured as part of that." The comments came a day after Putin urged pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine not to go ahead with a referendum this weekend on breaking away from Ukraine. Moscow has denied Western accusations that it is orchestrating the rebellion in the east, where Ukrainian forces have been largely unable to reassert control.
Next month's ceremony commemorates the troop landings in 1944 that opened the Western Front in World War Two and caught Hitler's forces in a giant pincer movement between the advancing Western allies and the Soviet army in the east. "It was the landings that led to the Normandy campaign but the campaign would not have been successful without the Eastern front. In these moments of commemoration it is important that all of those who took part should be present," Le Drian said.