PARIS — When the giant screen on Ouistreham’s Sword Beach beamed images of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama in a split picture, laughter erupted among those attending the D-Day commemorations on Friday.
That was the only way organizers could put the two heads of state in the same picture at the commemoration ceremony on the coast of France, when they were sitting “miles” apart.
The ambassadors of Russia and the United States had requested their presidents be kept apart to avoid contact both at the ceremony and during the lunch, according to Ouistreham Mayor Romain Bail.
Despite deliberately keeping their distance, the two leaders did meet briefly before lunch and discussed Ukraine, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
“Putin and Obama spoke for the need to end violence and fighting as quickly as possible,” Peskov said, without disclosing more details.
It was the first meeting between the two leaders since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March.
In an interview with U.S. NBC Nightly News before the commemoration, Obama said a resolution of the Ukraine crisis “requires Mr. Putin to recognize that Ukraine just elected Mr. (Petro) Poroshenko the legitimate president.”
Russia also needed to “stop financing and arming separatists who have been wreaking havoc in the eastern part of the country,” he said.
Obama delivered a similar message in his meeting with Putin, said Ben Rhodes, a deputy U.S. national security adviser.
Putin on Wednesday dismissed U.S. allegations of Russian military interference in Ukraine, launching a scathing attack on U.S. attempts to isolate his country over the crisis.
“There are no armed forces, no ‘Russian instructors’ in Ukraine — and there never were any,” he said.
The D-Day commemorations also brought Putin to a face-to-face talk with Ukraine President-elect Poroshenko, the first meeting between the two since Poroshenko won last month’s election.
The two men called for a quick end to the bloodshed in Ukraine and confirmed that there was no alternative to resolving the situation with peaceful political methods, Russian new agencies quoted Peskov as saying.
The informal meeting was brokered by French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an attempt to break the ice in what many believe is the most serious European crisis since the end of the Cold War.