President George Bush has waded into a bitter historical row between Russia and its former imperial vassals the Baltic states, putting the Kremlin's nose out of joint just days before he visits Moscow.
To compound Russia's discomfort Mr Bush has also decided to combine his Moscow visit with tub-thumping pro-democracy tours of two countries that the Kremlin regards as staunchly anti-Russian: Georgia and Latvia.
Mr Bush is due to review a spectacular military parade in Red Square along with other world leaders on 9 May, the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany. His attendance had been considered a coup for President Vladimir Putin, whom Washington has criticised of late for apparent backsliding on democracy and general authoritarianism.
But Mr Bush has shown he will not shrink from his "spreading democracy" message and has sided with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania against Russia in a dispute which Moscow finds repugnant. It considers that the end of what it calls the Great Patriotic War signified the victory of the glorious Red Army and the liberation of swaths of central and eastern Europe from Nazi tyranny.
However, the Baltic states and indeed other east European countries such as Poland regard the end of the Second World War as the beginning of almost half a century of Soviet occupation forced upon them by the Red Army. Such talk is regarded as treason in Moscow where officials accuse modern-day Baltic politicians of harbouring Nazi sympathies and of glorifying their countrymen who fought in the German SS.
In a letter to Latvia's President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Mr Bush firmly aligned himself with the Balts.
"In western Europe, the end of World War II meant liberation. In central and eastern Europe, the war also marked the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the imposition of Communism," he wrote. The American President said he understood and respected the decision of the presidents of Estonia and Lithuania to boycott the 9 May victory celebrations in Moscow, a démarche that Russia regards as a snub.
Mr Bush's intervention is likely to enrage Russian politicians who are ironically anxious to patch up what is becoming an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the United States.
In an interview yesterday with Rossiskaya Gazeta, the government-friendly daily, Sergey Ivanov, Russia's Defence Minister, made it clear that the Kremlin cannot stomach the Baltic states' interpretation of history.
"That war was won at the cost of countless deaths and the impact on demographics and our living standards is still perceptible," he said. "And when some now argue over whether we did or did not occupy other countries, I feel like asking them: 'And what would have become of you if we hadn't broken the back of fascism - would you still exist as a people?'"
Mr Bush's decision to visit Latvia, where Moscow believes the large Russian minority is being discriminated against, and Georgia, whose President is openly pushing for velvet revolutions across the former Soviet Union, is almost as hard for Moscow to swallow.
"This fact as such could be viewed as a kind of slap in Russia's face," Vyacheslav Nikonov, a prominent Russian political analyst, told the Interfax news agency.
"It's about the same as if Putin would go to Washington with a stopover in Havana, and after that he would fly to Pyongyang."Reuse content