VIENNA (AP) — Members of a nationalistic Russian bikers club were greeted by cheering supporters as they laid a wreath Saturday at a monument to the Soviet soldiers who liberated Vienna from the Nazis.
The pro-Kremlin Night Wolves are commemorating the Russian and Allied defeat of Nazi Germany 70 years ago in World War II with a ride from Moscow that is meant to end in Berlin May 9. Some EU officials have expressed criticism of their plans and Poland denied them entry, reflecting strains between Warsaw and Moscow over Russia's role in the Ukraine conflict.
In contrast, their reception in Vienna was strikingly free of tensions. Accompanied by more than a dozen supporters, two group members wearing their colors and displaying flapping Russian flags on their motorcycles, drove up to the central Vienna square to the monument depicting Russian soldiers in a martial pose. Assisted by soldiers from the Russian embassy, they then laid a wreath at the structure, erected by the Soviets after their liberation of Vienna.
Police spokesman Patrick Mayerhofer said a police escort accompanied the group to Vienna from the Slovak capital of Bratislava.
Police estimated that about 500 spectators turned up for the event. Some wore t-shirts with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others held signs saying "Stop Russia Phobia," and "We are brothers and sisters — no war."
Among those turning out was Russian Ambassador Sergey Nechaev, who thanked Austrian authorities for making the tribute possible.
"The bikers only came to commemorate and honor the fallen soldiers who died for the liberation of Austria," he told reporters, in comments focused on deflecting EU anxiety over the trip.
The Night Wolves support Putin, who has ridden with them, and backed Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
AP video journalist Philipp Jenne contributed from Vienna.