Two dozen world leaders flew to Russia for what promises to be a grandiose World War II victory parade May 9 despite a boycott by the United States and other Western countries.
Russia will roll out its military might and a dramatic reenactment of historic battles in a Red Square parade featuring 16,000 troops and an arsenal of hardware from the latest generation Armata tanks to 143 combat aircraft.
The event, which starts at 10 am local time in Moscow, will mark 70 years since victory over Nazi Germany by allied forces -- a victory which Moscow largely claims as its own these days.
The extensive celebrations reflect the longtime view in Russia that Victory Day was the most important event in modern Russian history. The Soviet Union lost an estimated 26 million people in the war, more than any other country, with virtually every Russian famly losing a member.
On the eve of the parade, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who flew in for the event and to seal a raft of trade deals with Russia.
Putin used the occasion to highlight the shift in Russia's outward focus toward Asia as economic ties and other relations with Russia have been frozen for more than a year by the West because of its aggression in Ukraine.
"We are very happy to see our Chinese friends at a time when the whole Russian people are celebrating victory," Putin said, savoring the presence of perhaps the most influential world leader at the event.
A parade of other world leaders was in train, with South African President Jacob Zuma and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic among the leaders who arrived May 8 ahead of the parade. Indian President Pranab Mukherjee got there early on May 7.
Western leaders have made a show of not attending the event, as some did in past years. They remain locked in a bitter standoff with Russia over the Ukraine crisis.
Only German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to fly in May 10 for a wreath-laying ceremony and talks with Putin.
Putin dismissed the snub by the West during a recent nationally televised call-in show, and laid the blame on Washington.
“Some simply do not want to come, but some are not being allowed to come by the ‘Washington apparatchiks,’ who say, ‘No way,’ ” he said. "Although many would like to come.”
The event will highlight Russia's far-flung and ambitious global reach under Putin, as well as his pivot towards bolstering alliances in Asia, South America, and Africa in the face of Western economic sanctions over Ukraine.
Twenty world leaders in all were attending the event, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Cuban President Raul Castro, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi all planned to make appearances.
Some countries sought to straddle the divide between Russia and the West. Turkish President Erdogan, for example, said he would not attend, but he sent his ambassador in Moscow in his place.
A few took made clear they were siding with Russia in the standoff.
"Serbia will never damage relations with the Russian Federation even for the sake of becoming a member of the European Union," Serbian President Nikolic said in an interview with Russian Rossiya 24 television May 8. "And the European Union cannot impose any conditions on Serbia regarding its suspension of cooperation with Russia."
The ceremonies promise to rival the extravaganza Russia put on for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, featuring a historic reconstruction of WWII events, with people dressed in uniform as infantrymen, sailors, pilots, cavalrymen, and Cossacks.
Around 2,300 people have been invited to Red Square to view military units from Russia and its allies, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, India, Mongolia, Serbia, and China.
Prior to the parade, Putin met the heads of the CIS group of ex-Soviet countries that he has sought to organize into an economic alliance like the European Union.
Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev made it his first trip abroad since he won a new five-year term in a one-sided election last month.
With reporting by AFP, Tass, and the New York Times