Nato troops marched across Red Square today as Russia marked the 65th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, a gesture of friendship to the West which won praise from US president Barack Obama but enraged Communists. Foreign leaders including President Hu Jintao of China and German chancellor Angela Merkel watched as over 11,000 troops from World War Two victors Russia, the United States, Britain, Poland and France paraded to the sound of a huge military band.
A detachment of Welsh Guards from Britain in their trademark red tunics and black bearskin hats marched past Lenin's mausoleum carrying assault rifles. Armed US troops from the 170th Infantry Brigade based in Germany followed shortly after. "Our unified formation is evidence of our common willingness to defend the peace," Russian president Dmitry Medvedev told the troops. "Only together can we confront today's threats, only on the basis of good neighbourliness can we solve the problems of global security."
Russia's Communists, still the country's biggest opposition party, pledged to hold a protest march in central Moscow after the parade. They will chant slogans against Nato forces for marching over a hallowed square which is also home to the embalmed body of their revolutionary hero, Vladimir Lenin. "Foreign troops have never appeared on Red Square. It's a violation of tradition," said Sergei Obukhov, a member of the party's Central Committee. "The presence of foreign troops with weapons in their hands is ... an unnecessary reminder that we lost the Cold War".
Mr Obama, unable to come to Moscow because of a scheduling clash, praised the invitation to Nato troops. "President Medvedev has shown remarkable leadership in honouring the sacrifices of those who came before us, and in speaking so candidly about the Soviet Union's suppression of elementary rights and freedoms," he said in a statement. Most Russians seem to back Mr Medvedev's invitation to the Nato forces.
A poll by the independent Levada Centre last month showed that 55 per cent viewed the presence of Nato troops at the parade as wholly or partly positive, with only 28 per cent opposing it. The result may reflect markedly better relations between Moscow and Washington since Mr Obama's election and his "reset" of relations. This has already brought a new treaty cutting nuclear weapons and a deal on helping supply Nato forces in Afghanistan.
Victory Day is one of Russia's most important public holidays and defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov said that this year's commemorations would be among the biggest ever, with over 102,000 troops marching in cities across this vast country. Continuing a tradition begun by Stalin, Soviet and then Russian troops have marched in Red Square every year on May 9 to mark the capitulation of Nazi forces in Berlin.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin revived two years ago a Soviet-era tradition of parading tanks, missiles and military vehicles across the square and flying helicopters, fighters and bombers low overhead. Uniformed war veterans, their chests weighed down with rows of clanking medals, packed the stands in front of the Kremlin walls to watch the parade in bright, warm sunshine. The walls of the giant luxury GUM shopping centre on Red Square were emblazoned with huge replicas of Soviet war medals. But in a concession to modernity, the Lenin mausoleum, from whose roof Soviet leaders used to watch the parade, was hidden from view by a large hoarding displaying the colours of the Russian flag.
Police locked down much of the centre of Moscow, blocking roads and checking identification papers amid heightened fears of attacks by Islamist insurgents after a March bombing on the Moscow metro killed 40. Two people were killed by bombs today in the southern Russian region of Dagestan. French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi cancelled their attendance at the last minute, citing the need to deal with the crisis surrounding the euro currency.