No rain on Boris's parade

VE Day in Russia/ signs of a 'Cold Peace'

SEVEN Antonov-26 planes are standing on alert at Bykovo Airport outside Moscow ready to serve the Kremlin in a critical mission - making sure nothing, not even the heavens, spoils President Boris Yeltsin's military parades.

So far, says Anatoli Yakovlev of the Federal Service for Hyrdo-Meteorological and Environmental Monitoring, the prognosis for Victory Day looks good. But Mr Yakovlev - whose last big commission was to clear the skies around Chernobyl - has a stern warning for any dark clouds that might stray towards Red Square next week: they will be promptly blasted from the air with a barrage of dry ice and chemicals.

Controlling the weather, though, could be the least of the Kremlin's worries as it prepares to commemorate the defeat of Hitler's Germany, at a cost to the Soviet Union of 27 million lives.

Less amenable are the clouds of war in Chechnya, the chill of what Mr Yeltsin warns could be a Cold Peace and the sensibilities of western leaders invited for celebrations that will include the biggest show of military aircraft in Moscow for four decades and a massive display of tanks, missiles, rocket launchers and other machinery of war.

Military flypasts were an indispensable feature under Stalin, whose second son, Vasily, a debauched alcoholic, enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Soviet Air Force until he botched plans for one such display of airpower in 1952 and nearly crashed planes onto the Kremlin. The flypast fell out of favour after Stalin's death. The last one was in 1954.

The revival of martial traditions has stirred unease among western leaders. Underscoring the decline in the east-west partnership will be a prickly two-day summit meeting between Mr Yeltsin and President Bill Clinton. They disagree on a host of issues, from the eastwards expansion of Nato and fighting in former Yugoslavia to Russia's campaign in Chechnya and its contract to sell nuclear technology to Iran.

After months of haggling over protocol for festivities in Moscow on Tuesday, a meticulously crafted compromise is showing signs of unravelling. To avoid embarrassing those wary of being photographed reviewing Russia's arsenal while the same army blasts away at villages in Chechnya, a parade of World War Two veterans in Red Square on Tuesday morning will be free of military hardware. Lethal weapons will be on display at a second parade later in the day at Proklonnaya Hill a few miles away.

But Franois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl have now announced they will visit Moscow but skip all parades; John Major will be in Red Square but will then avoid the full-blown military jamboree. Of 53 foreign leaders due in Moscow, 18 will attend both parades - many from countries less squeamish about domestic bloodshed: China, former Yugoslavia, Israel, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Tajikistan.

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