Both Russia and the U.S. have very different expectations on how to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. That could make it difficult for Obama or Putin to achieve their political goals in Europe this week.
U.S. President Barack Obama receives a salute from an honor guard upon his arrival in Paris on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 5, 2014. Photo: Reuters
The commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings that took place on June 6, 1944, is an asymmetric one in at least three ways, each of which makes it both more important and more problematic than any previous marking of that event and thus, more likely to generate expectations than cannot and will not be met.
First, the commemoration is asymmetric because World War II is an event very different in the minds of Russians than in the minds of Americans and Europeans.
For Russians, World War II is and remains the central act of their history during the last century, something in which they take almost unqualified pride and which their leaders routinely deploy as a moral solvent to undercut or dissolve any criticism. For Americans and Europeans, that conflict is increasingly a matter of history. Those who survived their participation in the conflict now are leaving the scene, and those who remain remember them but define themselves ever less in terms of that war.
Second, the Normandy commemoration is asymmetric because for Russians, Ukrainians and others in Eastern Europe, D-Day was important as a nail in the coffin of Nazism, but not as the central event of the war. The real war as far as most of them are concerned was fought on the Eastern front, where after Hitler turned on Stalin, the largest numbers of German forces were committed, the most blood spilled and the most resources spent.
For the West and especially Americans, D-Day is the beginning of the great Allied victory, and all too often those who celebrate the daring and heroism of those involved forget the contributions those who fought the Nazis on the Eastern front.
And finally, this year’s event is asymmetrical in another and more immediate sense. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is an occasion for escaping Russia’s international isolation some in the West have tried to impose since Russia’s intervention in Crimea and the events in Eastern Ukraine. It is also, just as importantly, an occasion for playing up divisions in the West between Washington and some European capitals in order to give Moscow greater room for maneuver.
For the West, and especially for U.S. President Barack Obama, this event is an occasion for doing three things, each of which may make the achievement of the other two more problematic.
It is clearly President Obama’s intention to use this anniversary to shore up Western unity against what Moscow has been doing. Further, it is his plan to use the attendance of Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko to embrace Ukraine and its choice to seek integration with the European Union in particular and the West more generally.
And finally, it is obviously the case that the U.S. president wants to draw on the memories of World War II-era cooperation to set the stage for future conversations among countries with different political systems and different orientations to the world.
Because both the Russian and the American president have more than one goal, each is constrained in his pursuit of one at the expense of others. Indeed, if either pushes too hard in one direction, he could find himself losing out in the others. That means in turn that the Normandy commemorations this year are unlikely to produce any breakthroughs or surprises. But one thing is certain: The spin doctors on all sides will be out in force, presenting whatever does happen to the best advantage of those they work for.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.