Russia displays military might at Red Square parade

Missiles, tanks and other heavy weaponry rolled through Moscow's Red Square in the annual Victory Day parade today, reviving a tradition of the Soviet era and demonstrating Russia's growing military confidence.

Victory Day, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany, is Russia's most important secular holiday.

It honours the country's enormous Second World War sacrifices - nearly nine million Red Army soldiers are estimated to have died - and asserts the country's military strength.

Russia has nearly quadrupled its defence spending in recent years, aiming to resuscitate the military forces that deteriorated in the post-Soviet period.

The display of more than 100 tanks, mobile missile units and armoured vehicles was aimed at underlining the military revival - but much of the heavy weaponry shown was only slightly modernised versions of equipment developed decades ago.

Although the display was significantly smaller than in Soviet-era parades, the return of the tradition has raised concerns that Russia harbours aggressive ambitions.

However, President Dmitry Medvedev, in a speech opening the parade, said: "The true purpose of weapons and military equipment is to give reliable defence of the homeland."

Mr Medvedev, who took office on Wednesday, avoided controversial statements such as predecessor Vladimir Putin's parade speech last year that implied parallels between the US and Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

But he said: "We must not allow contempt for the norms of international law."

Russia has consistently criticised both the US-led war in Iraq and wide Western recognition of Kosovo's independence as arrogant violations of international principles.

Mr Putin, who was named Russian prime minister yesterday, stood just behind Mr Medvedev's shoulder and his face was prominently shown in TV broadcasts as the president spoke - underlining the wide belief that Mr Putin will be the power behind the presidency.

Although Russian officials deny any intention of returning to Soviet ways, the style and symbolism of Victory Day is heavily redolent of the Communist era.

Posters proclaiming the holiday throughout the city include the hammer-and-sickle insignia, which is also seen on the banners and period uniforms used by some of the regiments, which goose-stepped across the six-acre square under clear skies.

Defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov reviewed troops before the parade by standing in the back seat of an open 1980s-era Zil limousine.

About three million Second World War veterans are still alive, but although they receive extensive public praise, their pensions are small and many live in poor conditions.

Mr Medvedev's first decree after taking office was to order that all Second World War veterans receive housing by 2010.

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