MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia on Saturday staged a huge military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in a conspicuous show of military might amid a stand-off with the West over Ukraine.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu presided over the parade on Moscow's Red Square, one of the largest Victory Day festivities in recent decades. Western countries led by Russia's World War II allies are boycotting the May 9 festivities due to the Ukraine crisis, leaving President Vladimir Putin to mark the day in the company of the leaders of China, Cuba and other Moscow-friendly figures.
New tanks, mammoth nuclear missile systems and some 16,000 troops were set to sweep past the Kremlin under the gaze of Mr Putin in a defiant show of strength held in front of leaders from countries including Zimbabwe and Venezuela.
Huge crowds of Russians were expected to flood into central Moscow to take in the largest such parade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, aimed at whipping up patriotic zeal and commemorating the country's vast war-time sacrifices.
But the Kremlin showcase is being overshadowed by the current crisis over Ukraine, which has seen ties between Russia and the West plunge to their lowest point since the Cold War over Moscow's seizure of Crimea and allegations Mr Putin is fuelling a brutal separatist conflict.
United States President Barack Obama has snubbed the event, as have the leaders of Russia's other key World War II allies Britain and France, which is sending its foreign minister instead.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ducked out of attending the parade but will fly to Moscow on Sunday to lay a wreath at the grave of the Unknown Soldier and meet Mr Putin.
Instead, most prominent on the podium next to Mr Putin will be United Nations chief Ban Ki Moon, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and India's President Pranab Mukherjee.
Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Cuban supremo Raul Castro, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and South Africa's Jacob Zuma are also set to attend the event.
The list of attendees and absentees reflects the Kremlin's hunt for new allies in the face of tough Western sanctions over Ukraine - although North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong Un eventually decided to reject an invitation to show up.
An estimated 27 million of the former Soviet Union's soldiers and civilians were killed in WWII and the Red Army's triumph in the deadliest war in history is seen as a huge point of pride in Russia, with ubiquitous black and orange ribbons marking the event around the country.
Over 70 per cent of Russians say a close family member was killed or went missing during the war, making Victory Day an emotional symbol of unity for the nation.
Some 165,000 people are expected to march through central Moscow after the parade with portraits of relatives who fought in the war.
In recent years the victory in the 1941-1945 conflict, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, has been raised to cult status and critics accuse Putin of seeking to co-opt the country's history to boost his personal power.
The Kremlin has also used WWII narratives to rally support for its current agenda, for example painting the Ukrainian government as Nazi sympathisers.
This year the parade will see over a hundred military planes - including long-range nuclear bombers - swoop over Moscow in a spectacular fly-by.
Also on show for the first time will be some of the Russian military's latest weaponry designed to replace creaking Soviet-era equipment.
One of the most prominent is the latest generation Armata tanks, which represent a key part of the major overhaul of Moscow's armoury.
According to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, some of the armoured vehicles on show "represent the biggest change in Russia's armoured fighting vehicle families since the 1960s and 1970s".
From the latest generation of battle tanks to artillery systems, here is a list of some of the military hardware that will be on display: T-14 ARMATA TANK With a remote-controlled gun turret capable of firing missiles, the Armata is billed as the "flagship" of a new family of increasingly automated Russian armoured vehicles.
The three-man crew is housed in a self-contained capsule at the front of the tank's chassis with control over a fearsome 125mm main cannon, a secondary 30mm gun and a 12.7mm machine gun.
Despite concerns over the high cost of production, the Russian military reportedly will start receiving the tanks this year and will eventually boast some 2,300 of the modern weapons.
Heralded as the future pride of the Russian forces, the Armata appeared to suffer a hitch at a rehearsal in the run-up to victory parade when one of the new tanks embarrassingly stalled on Red Square.
Designed to destroy enemy nuclear bunkers and blast through fortifications scores of kilometres away, the new self-propelled artillery system has a 152mm cannon and is estimated to weigh about 55 tonnes.
Another of the new generation of robotic armoured vehicles, the Kurganets APC is set to replace the current crop of Soviet-era troop carriers. Designed to ferry infantry in greater safety, the 25-tonne beast has guns that are controlled remotely by the crew and can be fitted with larger cannons.
The eight-wheeler troop carrier has a propeller at the back of its hull to allow it to act as an amphibious vehicle. It is believed that it will eventually be topped off with an unmanned automated gun turret.
Looking like a beefed-up jeep with a serious sound system, the 4x4 Kornet is equipped with eight missiles in banks of four on each side and is designed to blast enemy armour apart.
Not new but on show will be the mammoth Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile system, designed to fire nuclear warheads.
Also rumbling across Red Square will be Buk surface-to-air missile systems. Kiev and the West have claimed such a system was used by pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine to shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July, killing all 298 people on board.
Smaller parades in 25 other cities will involve a total of another 25,000 soldiers and even nuclear submarines, according to the defence ministry.
Russia's leadership have shrugged off the no-show by Western leaders and insisted nothing will rain on the victory parade, with even the weather not being left up to chance.
Early on Saturday, planes will seed rain clouds with chemicals such as silver iodide in a bid to prevent them bursting over central Moscow during the morning parade.