Vladimir Putin (L), then Russia's Prime Minister, walks with Alexander Zaldostanov (R), the leader of the group of Russian bikers called the Night Wolves, near Sevastopol, on July 24, 2010 in what was then Ukraine
Moscow (AFP) - A Russian biker gang backed by President Vladimir Putin is planning to ride through Europe to celebrate the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, sparking controversy in Central Europe.
A two-week 6,000-kilometre (3,750-mile) rally by Russian bikers including the Night Wolves, a fiercely nationalistic motorcycle club, will pass through Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and end in Berlin on May 9.
"To Berlin!" says a page on the biker gang's website dedicated to the rally, an allusion to the Red Army's famous WWII battle cry.
The commemorative event comes with tensions running high between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine.
The Night Wolves' leader, Alexander Zaldostanov, who praises Stalin and has vowed to fight the anti-Putin opposition, is under US and Canadian sanctions for his support of Moscow's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine last year.
The plan sparked controversy in central Europe, with some welcoming the Russians and others saying they should be banned from European Union territory.
The Polish foreign ministry dubbed the ride a "problem".
But bikers insist their journey is not politically motivated.
"This is a memorial rally," said Andrei Bobrovsky, the organiser of the rally, which is set to begin on April 25.
"The main goal is to pay respects to those killed on WWII battlefields in the struggle against Hitler's Nazis -- soldiers and innocent civilians," he told AFP.
"Another goal is to develop and strengthen good neighbourly ties."
During their journey the bikers will visit war memorials, Auschwitz and Dachau death camps and Berlin's Treptower Park famous for its Soviet war memorial.
Bobrovsky said many Europeans wanted to join the rally including Germans.
- Outcry in Poland -
The Russian ride however sparked controversy in Poland, one of the fiercest backers of Ukraine's pro-Western government, and several other Central European countries.
A Polish Facebook page, dubbed "No to the passage of Russian bandits through Poland", calls on the authorities to ban the Russians from the EU.
Jarek Podworski, a biker from the city of Lublin in eastern Poland who helped set up the Facebook page, said that it was "unimaginable" for bikers who have supported pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine to ride through EU countries.
"We know very well what they are doing in Ukraine," Podworski told AFP.
"Brandishing Russian flags, they want to trace the footsteps of the Red Army which in reality did not bring freedom to Poland."
"The Russians are testing the limits of their expansion. If they pass, there is a risk that in three years they will come for good."
Podworski called on Poles to disrupt the rally by blocking the roads.
The Polish foreign ministry said it was "watching the problem."
Similar protest groups also appeared on Facebook in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
"We do not agree with the passage through our territory of a gang which publicly supports the politics of aggression," opponents of the rally said in Slovakia.
"The Night Wolves are a criminal organisation, which was involved in the seizure of Crimea and the Ukraine fighting," added a Czech Facebook page protesting the ride.
But others were in favour.
"Let Russian, Slovak, Czech or Soviet flags accompany our friends on their way to Vienna and Berlin," wrote one supporter on the Czech Facebook page.
Zaldostanov, who also goes by the nickname "Khirurg" (Surgeon), dismissed the critical remarks.
"We are not a $100 bill (94 euros), not everyone is going to like us," he said last week. "We are not going to drop our plans."
The Night Wolves, sometimes seen as Russia's answer to the American biker gang Hells Angels, count Putin among their fans.
The Russian strongman famously rode a Harley-Davidson trike at a bikers' get-together in Crimea in 2010.