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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians to Make Last March of WWII

Half a century after the Red Army overran the smoldering ruins of Berlin and Adolf Hitler shot himself in his underground bunker, the last chapter of World War II in Europe finally closes Wednesday when Russian troops pull out of Germany and the Baltic states.

In a solemn ceremony watched by President Boris Yeltsin and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, General Matvei Burlakov, 12th commander of Soviet forces in Germany since Marshal Georgy Zhukov, will lead the last few hundred troops out of the German capital.

Wednesday's parade in Berlin, together with smaller ones in Estonia and Latvia, is the culmination of a huge three-year peacetime retreat, celebrated in the countries the troops are leaving but mired in controversy and disillusionment within Russia.

"It is the largest strategic withdrawal in modern history," said Professor John Erickson of Edinburgh University, author of the definitive book on the Russian front in World War II.

Vladimir Beketov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, called it simply "unprecedented."

Beketov said that there had been 546,000 Soviet staff and relatives in East Germany at the beginning of 1991 of whom 340,000 were soldiers. Returning to Russia, they join 135,000 men who left Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1991 and 45,000 who withdrew from Poland last year.

Further east, Russia has also withdrawn its troops from Mongolia. It has pulled out of Azerbaijan, is due to leave Moldova within three years and has cut back its presence in the other seven CIS republics.

Wednesday's pullout peels away two of the outer layers of Moscow's empire, with very different historical results.

Moscow's strategic interest in Germany disappeared with the end of the Cold War. The Russians are leaving virtually no trace of their occupation apart from their ransacked barracks and scarred training grounds. A posting in Germany was a much sought-after privilege, Erickson said, but the Soviet army did not tend to fraternize with the local population.

The pullout from the Baltic states is much more traumatic for Russia.

Unlike the agreement with Germany, the withdrawals from Estonia and Latvia have only been given the go-ahead very recently. A deal was struck with Estonia only after a last-ditch summit between President Boris Yeltsin and President Lennart Meri of Estonia in Moscow last month.

The last-minute agreements reflected a reluctance to abandon a historically important area with a large Russian population. Moscow has ties in the area going back to 1720, when the region was first incorporated in the Russian empire.

Peter the Great was one of many monarchs to base a fleet on the Baltic coast, the westernmost outpost for the Russian navy. Occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 under secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the three tiny Baltic countries became home to as many as 140,000 troops.

"The Russian army is implanted there," Erickson said, pointing out that many Russians have married and settled down in the Baltic states

The great retreat redraws at a stroke Russia's map of strategic interests.

"Along the western flank we are moving towards a secure demilitarization. That has been the challenge of yesterday," said Dmitry Trenin, a military specialist at the Institute of Europe.

Trenin said Russia was preoccupied today with its southern flank in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where it sees the greatest threat of instability. Earlier this year Moscow signed military agreements with Armenia and Georgia on maintaining its garrisons there and it still has at least 20,000 men stationed in Tajikistan helping the ex-communist government fight off Islamic insurgents.

But the greatest impact of the withdrawal may be felt at home.

The handling of the troop transfer had been a "disaster," Erickson said. Despite huge amounts of Western aid the Russian authorities had failed to prepare adequately for the inevitable influx of soldiers. The generals have managed to look after themselves, but the lower ranks are facing meager salaries, unbuilt homes and uncertain futures.

"The portents are not good for a disillusioned, disenfranchised military establishment which has been stripped of its dignity," Erickson said

"It's all grist to the mill of the likes of Zhirinovsky and Rutskoi," said Trenin, predicting renewed tensions between the army and the government.