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Western leaders will have their own objectives as they meet for D-Day events

As silence falls over the beaches of Normandy, the leaders gathered to mark this important anniversary will recognise the grim irony that hangs in the air.

An occasion that recalls the horrors of war will take place as conflict rages in Europe and beyond.

Its why words will be chosen carefully in public and why, along with the D-Day events, this will be an important diplomatic event. Leaders will meet in Caen this afternoon to hold talks, the sight of veterans, beaches and long lines of war graves fresh in their memory.

And it’s also why Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, will be attending the commemoration.

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He will remind those present that, just as the number of D-Day veterans is dwindling, so his own country’s pain is growing all the time.

The D-Day events have always been about remembering the dead, honouring those who took part and ensuring that history is not forgotten. Zelenskyy will surely invoke all these themes as being his country’s present, not its past.

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His main message will be a familiar one – that Ukraine needs more weapons and more support. That his country’s war, and the pain it is suffering, will have repercussions for Europe, and for the wider world.

There are crucial figures here for him to talk to. Foremost, of course, will be the American president Joe Biden, whose money is so crucial to Ukraine’s ability to fight its war and whose nation probably holds the key to whether, and when, Ukraine eventually joins NATO.

Zelenskyy, an adept politician, will also want his diplomats to be working on developing a network of contacts who might still remain in place if Donald Trump were to win the American election – a result that would surely imperil at least some of his nation’s funding.

But Zelenskyy will not seek Biden alone. He will want to see the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who has provided a huge amount of support to his nation.

German leaders have long been invited to these commemorations as a sign of reconciliation and unity – another theme that the Ukrainian leader will wish to project.

Then there is the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who is hosting the commemoration and has long sought to project himself as Europe’s diplomat-in-chief, and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council who has spoken regularly of his desire to tighten relations with Ukraine.

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Zelenskyy will want to see Rishi Sunak, too, and Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau – G7 leaders and, crucially, significant voices within NATO.

And he will certainly want to shake hands with prime ministers from the Netherlands, Greece and Luxembourg – all of them EU member states.

But one of his most sensitive meetings could be with the Polish president Andrzej Duda.

Duda sits at the heart of a national political system that is almost dysfunctional, thanks to his own opposition to the prime minister, Donald Tusk.

But Zelenskyy still needs the support of a giant neighbouring country that has taken in so many of his own citizens as refugees.

He won’t want to be seen as getting too close to Duda – Tusk is a more natural ally – but nor will he want to upset him. Diplomacy is never easy.

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Biden’s role here is primarily to represent the families of those who perished on the beaches, for D-Day remains a seminal event in American history.

But he, too, will have an eye on the wider picture – on the need to project himself as a strong statesmanlike figure who commands global respect – a sort of anti-Trump.

As for Macron, the timing is politically handy. Just as French voters head to polling stations for the European elections, there will be images of their president shaking hands with Mr Biden as the president follows the D-Day commemoration with a state visit to France.

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Macron’s team will no doubt present this as proof that, under this president’s stewardship, the country’s diplomatic clout has grown; that he is a cut above his political rivals.

But in truth, Mr Macron’s self-made centrist party, now known as Renaissance, has been bracing itself for electoral defeat to the right-wing Rassemblement National, the party of Marine Le Pen.

So while it’s hard to imagine many of Le Pen’s backers would change their mind simply because they see the two presidents shaking hands at the Elysee, it might be enough to either win over some of the undecided, or to lure out a chunk of the reluctant.


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And amid all the diplomacy and the meetings, there is one country very notable by its absence. Russia’s troops played a pivotal role in the Second World War, but there will be no Russian representative at D-Day.

Vladimir Putin was never invited, nor ever going to come, but the Russian ambassador to France had been asked to attend.

That invitation was later rescinded – a reminder that, 80 years after D-Day, Europe is fractured once more.

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