Merkel urges Russia cooperation after paying respects to WWII dead

Anna Smolchenko
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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin Wall in Moscow on May 10, 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin Wall in Moscow on May 10, 2015 (AFP Photo/Kirill Kudryavtsev)

Moscow (AFP) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday paid tribute to Soviet soldiers killed in WWII as she called for cooperation with Russia amid tensions over Ukraine.

Merkel flew to Moscow to lay a wreath at the grave of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin walls, in an apparent compromise gesture after she skipped Russia's main festivities on Saturday.

Meeting her host Vladimir Putin for talks at the Kremlin, she stressed the importance of cooperation.

"It's necessary for us to work, to cooperate including over complicated situations -- the way the situation is now -- and try to find diplomatic solutions," Merkel said at the start of the talks after the wreath-laying ceremony.

The two leaders were set to discuss the Ukraine crisis over and address reporters afterwards.

Russia on Saturday staged a huge parade to mark the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany but most Western countries boycotted the festivities over Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In February, Putin hosted Merkel and French leader Francois Hollande for crunch talks over Ukraine, in what was the German leader's first Russian visit since the start of the crisis.

In recent months Merkel has played a key negotiation role over Ukraine, acting as a go-between for an isolated Kremlin and the West.

Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of masterminding the brutal separatist conflict in east Ukraine that has killed more than 6,100 people in just over a year.

Political analyst Lilia Shevtsova said Sunday's meeting between Putin and Merkel was highly symbolic.

"They are hardly happy to see each other," the prominent pro-Western analyst wrote on Facebook.

"He is trying to retain his seat at the table by turning to the shadows of the past and other people's glory."

"But she has not accepted his rules of the game having arrived to pay tribute to the people who won."

-'Everyone is here'-

Many are concerned that Putin is using WWII festivities to justify Russia's meddling in Ukraine and promote his nationalism-tinged agenda.

Putin shrugged off the Western snub and instead played up ties with Asia, Latin America and Africa.

"Everyone we wanted to see was here," he said in televised remarks Saturday evening.

Just before meeting Merkel Putin hosted 91-year-old Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who praised him for standing up to Washington and noted that their two countries had been slapped with sanctions.

"That is the reason why we should remain together," Mugabe said.

But Putin also signalled his willingness to mend ties with Europe when he hosted Czech President Milos Zeman, one of the few European leaders to fly to Moscow for the festivities.

"It was not us who initiated the chill in relations with Europe but I hope that thanks to politicians like you we will manage not only to revive them completely but to also move forward," Putin said on Saturday.

The Czech leftwinger leader for his part said he was confident that "normal ties will replace the chill."

Like Putin, many Russians shrugged off the Western no-show as they celebrated Victory Day well into the night, singing war-era songs and feting veterans.

A whopping 500,000 people marched through central Moscow with portraits of their relatives who fought in the war, in the biggest march of Putin's 15-year rule.

The 62-year-old strongman wowed Russians by unexpectedly joining the mammoth procession on Red Square, a portrait of his veteran father Vladimir in his hand.