Pro-Putin bikers have set out on a controversial ride to Berlin to commemorate the end of World War II. But for the second year in a row, Poland has barred the group from crossing its borders due to security concerns.
Poland's foreign minister said on Friday that the ban on bikers from the Russian nationalist Night Wolves club was necessary to "guarantee public order."
"After what they said, we may to some extent believe that it's a 'patriotic' trip," Polish Senate head Stanislaw Karczewski told the private news channel Polsat News. "But on the other hand, the Russian side provokes us as well as Europe, so we have to be careful," he added.
Last year, Poland also denied the nationalist group entry amid tensions between Warsaw and Moscow over the Ukraine crisis.
The Night Wolves set out from Moscow on Friday on a ride to Germany's capital to celebrate the 71st anniversary of the Russian Red Army and Allied victory over Nazi Germany on May 9.
Numerous members were denied visas again this year. As a result, the group's leader, Alexander "The Surgeon" Zaldostanov, was only able to lead around two dozen bikers to neighboring Belarus on Friday, reported Russian news agency TASS.
Following this year's bans, Russia's Foreign Ministry summoned Poland's ambassador, Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz, to voice its concerns over what it called a "particularly cynical and malicious gesture aimed at the deliberate deterioration of Russian-Polish relations.
It said the ban deprived Russian citizens of the possibility to "pay tribute to Soviet soldiers who died during the liberation of Europe from fascism."
'Putin's Hells Angels'
Zaldostanov, a former physician and alleged friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, began Friday's journey by crossing himself, saying: "We go with God."
The biker group, dubbed in the media as "Putin's Hells Angels," intended to enter the European Union in Poland and ride through Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic before arriving in Germany.
Should the group reach Berlin, they plan to visit Soviet war memorials in Treptower Park and the wooded recreation area Schönholzer Heide, as well as the famous Brandenburg Gate.
The Night Wolves was established in 1989 and is comprised of 5,000 members from across the territory of the former Soviet Union.
They have sparked controversy in the West for their support for Russia's occupation and annexation of neighboring Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014, as well as for the pro-Russian separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
Putin even awarded the patriotic medal "For the Return of Crimea" to Zaldostanov for his gang's efforts to promote Russian nationalism in the region.
Putin himself has ridden a three-wheeled motorcycle called a "trike" with the club on several occasions.
rs/tj (AP, AFP, dpa)