Moscow: Russia is gearing up for hugely patriotic celebrations of its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II on Friday, but festivities in neighbouring Ukraine will be muted amid fears of provocations.
The May 9 commemorations come at an extremely sensitive time for the two Slavic nations that fought side by side against Nazi Germany but are now locked in an unprecedented confrontation that threatens to tip Ukraine into civil war.
Russian media reported that President Vladimir Putin could make a triumphant Victory Day trip to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in March, but his spokesman refused to confirm that.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it would be a "pity" if Putin were to "use" the commemorations to visit the peninsula.
Whereas Russia plans to mark the day with a display of military hardware and a show of patriotic fervour on Red Square, authorities in Kiev plan a low-key wreath-laying ceremony.
And while there will be a parade in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, Kiev has discouraged public gatherings and stepped up security amid fears pro-Russian militants might try to stoke violence on such a symbolic day.
"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 interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, urging vigilance.
Complicating matters further, Russia`s tough-talking deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin plans to celebrate Victory Day in Moldova`s breakaway region of Transdniestr, near Ukraine`s flashpoint city of Odessa.
"Victory Day no longer brings Ukraine and Russia close," political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky told AFP.Ahead of the celebrations, Kiev has cast Russia as an aggressor bent on sowing chaos in Ukraine, while the Kremlin has accused its neighbour`s pro-Western authorities of siding with "fascists" and ultra-right groups.
Fuelling tensions is the hugely divisive legacy of the nationalist movement in western Ukraine, which was occupied by the Soviet Union and whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army collaborated with Nazi Germany.
Animosity between the two Slavic nations has reached such levels that Ukraine is dropping the black-and-orange St. George ribbon, which Russians cherish as a symbol of Victory Day, instead adopting the red poppy as its symbol of remembrance.
Pro-Russian separatists fighting the Kiev authorities have used the St. George ribbon to signal their allegiance, earning the derisive nickname of "Colorado beetles," a reference to the ribbon`s colours.
"The symbol of victory has come to signify an attempt to seize the territory of a sovereign state," said Elena Urban, a 25-year-old student from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.According to some estimates, the Soviet Union lost about 30 million lives in the war and Russia`s victory over Nazi Germany remains a source of great pride in the country.
In recent years Putin has skillfully tapped into Russian patriotism, using the festivities to rally support.
The 61-year-old strongman has said he will not tolerate attempts to revisit the history of WWII -- known in Russia as the "Great Patriotic War" -- to glorify "fascists" or belittle the country`s sacrifices.
"May 9 has become the epicentre of the new Putin ideology," Moscow-based political commentator Yulia Latynina said. "Our Great Patriotic war has begun to play the role of a national icon."
Ahead of the celebrations, Putin signed off on legislation making it a criminal offence to deny facts established by the Nuremberg trials.
After the latest outbreak of violence left dozens dead in the Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine, Moscow`s official rhetoric moved to compare the events to the darkest crimes of Nazi Germany such as the Auschwitz death camp, in a move threatening to further inflame tensions.
Russian authorities have in recent days staged rehearsals of the parade in Moscow as war-era songs blare out from the ornate metro system.
Meanwhile, Kiev has mostly been eerily calm, a remarkable contrast to the violence tearing across eastern Ukraine.
"As a result of Russia`s aggression against Ukraine, this day has completely ceased being a holiday and will become a tragic date to remember," said Moscow-based pro-opposition analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.