MOSCOW (AFP) — Fighter jets circled over Red Square on Monday as Russia prepared a huge patriotic display around this week's presidential inauguration, amid rising tension with pro-Western neighbour Georgia.
MiG fighter jets together with strategic bomber planes thundered over the capital in a rehearsal for traditional World War II commemorations on Friday featuring a show of military hardware unprecedented for the post-Soviet era.
The military parade is part of the dramatic backdrop to president-elect Dmitry Medvedev's inauguration on Wednesday, following Soviet-style May Day parades last week.
President Vladimir Putin, who is to step down after eight years but retain power in the prime minister's post, said the pumped up display was not intended as a threat.
"For the first time in many years heavy military equipment will be used. This is not sabre-rattling. We are not threatening anyone.... This is a demonstration of our growing defence capability," Putin said.
But as traffic police closed much of the city centre to rehearse the inauguration procession, the popular daily Izvestia said this week's events were intended to send a message to the outside world.
It included a photograph of the 100-tonne Topol strategic missile system that will be used in the parade, for which the cobblestones on Red Square have been specially reinforced.
The parade "can be taken as a call for the rebirth of our army... and as a signal to our partners in NATO who are moving their bases towards Russian borders," Izvestia said.
Other papers also linked the inauguration to rising tensions with the West and the NATO military alliance's expansion to former Soviet territory, as well as the latest spike in tension with Georgia.
The war of nerves between Georgia, Russia and the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia stepped up a notch on Sunday as Abkhaz officials claimed to have downed two unmanned Georgian spy planes.
Russia issued a statement accusing Georgia of escalating tension, while Tbilisi categorically denied it had lost any drones.
Last week Russia increased from 2,000 to 3,000 troops its peacekeeping force in Abkhazia, seen by Georgia as giving de facto support to the separatists.
The peacekeepers were shown on Russian television being greeted with flowers by local residents.
On Monday Georgia announced its withdrawal from an air defence accord with Russia, part of joint defence arrangements with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) group of ex-Soviet nations.
A source quoted by Interfax news agency said the move would have little practical effect, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed Georgia for raising tensions.
"I want to express our great alarm at this confrontational stance, which we see, based on ever-more alarming factors, as an attempt at forceful resolution of these conflicts," Lavrov told journalists.
Political commentator Yevgeny Volk said Putin wanted to make Friday's parade a show of force to the West, while he also wanted to ensure a tough line by his successor.
"The present group is making Medvedev a hostage of their policies," said Volk, who heads the Moscow office of the US Heritage Foundation, a research centre.
Volk said there was a real risk of conflict in Abkhazia.
"I don't believe Russia really wants some kind of military action but according to all laws of conflict studies, sometimes an escalation runs out of control," said Volk.
"What Russia wants now is clearly to intimidate Saakashvili's regime," he said, referring to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
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