MOSCOW (Reuters) - NATO troops will march across Red Square on Sunday as Russia marks the 65th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, a gesture of friendship to the West which has won praise from President Barack Obama but enraged Communists.
Foreign leaders including President Hu Jintao of China and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will watch as over 11,000 troops from World War Two victors Russia, the United States, Britain and France parade to the sound of a huge military band.
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.”
Obama, unable to come to Moscow because of a scheduling clash, praised the invitation to NATO troops.
“President Medvedev has shown remarkable leadership in honoring 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 Medvedev’s invitation to the NATO forces, which will include a detachment of Welsh Guards from Britain and around 70 U.S. troops from the 170th Infantry Brigade based in Germany.
A poll by the independent Levada Center last month showed that 55 percent viewed the presence of NATO troops at the parade as wholly or partly positive, with only 28 percent opposing it.
The result may reflect markedly better relations between Moscow and Washington since 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 Defense 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.
But contemporary concerns have also intruded. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi canceled their attendance at the last minute, citing the need to deal with the crisis surrounding the euro currency.
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.
While Medvedev greeted war veterans on Saturday, accompanied by Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich and Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, Putin hosted a special meeting and dinner at his country retreat outside Moscow for China’s Hu.
The Kremlin, which is eager to shore up its influence and tighten ties two decades after the Soviet breakup, is using this year’s parade to stress bonds among the former republics, many of whose leaders will attend.
Among the weaponry on show this year will be Russia’s latest S-400 air Defense system, which claims to be capable of shooting down up to six missiles or aircraft simultaneously at a distance of up to 400 km (250 miles).
China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates are said to be interested in buying the system.
Additional reporting by Conor Humphries, Gleb Bryanski and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Mark Trevelyan