Thousands of Russian troops marched in Red Square to mark 69 years since victory in World War II in a show of military might amid tensions in Ukraine following Moscow\’s annexation of Crimea.
President Vladimir Putin watched from the stands as 11,000 Russian troops took part in Friday\’s parade marking Russia\’s victory in World War II.
Putin did not mention Ukraine in his speech, telling the crowd that the "iron will of the Soviet people" had saved Europe from slavery.
"It is a holiday when an overwhelming force of patriotism triumphs, when all of us feel particularly acutely what it means to be loyal to the Motherland and how important it is to defend its interests," he said.
The parade in Moscow traditionally features a display of military hardware and a show of patriotic fervour on Red Square.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it would be a "pity" if Putin were to "use" the commemorations to visit Crimea.
Meanwhile, Ukraine\’s interim authorities have discouraged public gatherings amid fears that pro-Russian activists might try to stoke violence.
"Roadblocks have been set up around our capital, where serious checks are being carried out, because we expect that provocative actions may occur on May 9," said Ukraine\’s acting President Olexander Turchynov.
A low-key wreath-laying ceremony is planned in Kiev.
Nazi Germany invaded the USSR – which included Ukraine – in June 1941 and advanced almost as far as Moscow before being driven back to Berlin in some of the fiercest fighting of the war.
Russia estimates that 26.6 million Soviet citizens were killed in the war, about 8.7 million of them members of the armed forces.
The pomp in Moscow comes as Russia ordered energy-dependent Ukraine to pay in advance for all future natural gas deliveries.
The Russian Energy Ministry said Thursday Ukraine missed a Wednesday deadline to pay down a $3.5 billion energy debt. As the cash-poor Kyiv government struggles to maintain economic and political stability, Moscow now says all gas sent from June 1 will require cash in advance.
It remained unclear late Thursday what impact the prepayment edict will have on the European Union. Russia supplies about 30 percent of Western Europe\’s gas needs, with about half of those supplies passing through Ukraine.
Ukraine has so far refused to pay down its energy debt to protest Moscow\’s recent gas price increase that nearly doubles what Ukraine\’s energy monopoly Naftogaz pays its neighbor.
The Russian president last month warned the European Union that it would require gas prepayments from Ukraine unless Europe helped cover the Ukrainian debt. Since then, the International Monetary Fund has approved a loan package to Kyiv that includes an initial payment of more than $2 billion.
In another development, pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk said they will go ahead with votes Sunday on whether to declare independence from Kyiv, despite calls from Russian President Putin to postpone the votes.
Russian media quoted separatist Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-declared Donetsk People\’s Republic, as saying the referendum will ask residents to vote yes or no on whether they support a "proclamation of state independence." Luhansk residents will be asked the same question, despite recent polling showing 70 percent of residents in eastern Ukraine want to remain part of Ukraine.
Separatist protests have gripped eastern regions and the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow in March.
The United States and Ukraine do not recognize the annexation.