MOSCOW - Thousands of ultra-nationalists were expected to march in Moscow on Tuesday amid fears that the Kremlin's support for separatists in Ukraine was whipping up xenophobia and jingoism at home.
The annual "Russian March" comes at a time of heightened social tensions, with the country's isolation growing and Western sanctions eroding people's livelihoods.
Analysts say the Kremlin has been playing a risky game stirring up patriotic sentiment by annexing Crimea and supporting Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine.
They say the government is aware of the danger of a rise in ultra-nationalism, pointing to attempts to co-opt the movement and crack down on its most radical leaders.
Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated recently that only his government had a license to protect ethnic Slavs.
"The biggest nationalist in Russia is me," he told foreign analysts and journalists in a speech late last month.
"Patriotism can transform into nationalism. This is dangerous for the country," he added.
One of Russia's most prominent ultra-nationalists, Dmitry Dyomushkin, said he had come under "monstrous pressure" ahead of Tuesday's march.
"They disliked us before, and now they hate us," the head of The Russians, an anti-Kremlin nationalist movement, told AFP.
He said that representatives of the FSB security services - the KGB's main successor agency - had repeatedly asked him to postpone the march because of a "complicated political situation".
"There were two meetings, one of them lasted eight hours," he said.
After Dyomushkin refused to delay the march, his close ally Alexander Belov was accused of economic crimes and arrested.
His anti-Kremlin movement was finally allowed to hold a joint march with the Nationalist Democratic Party, a fellow nationalist movement which supports pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine, but only on the outskirts of the capital.
The march is timed to coincide with the Day of Popular Unity, a national holiday which marks the 1612 expulsion of Polish occupation forces from the Kremlin.
Dyomushkin and Vladimir Tor, a senior member of the Nationalist Democratic Party, said nationalists both for and against the rebels in Ukraine had agreed to put their differences aside in a show of unity for the march.
The authorities chose the lesser of two evils by allowing the march, said Alexander Verkhovsky, the head of Sova group which monitors extremism and hate crimes.
"If several thousand decisive young men want to march, nothing will stand in their way," Verkhovsky told AFP.
A separate nationalist march in northwestern Moscow will seek to rally support for rebel-held eastern Ukraine, with Igor Strelkov, a charismatic Russian who gained prominence earlier this year as a top separatist leader in Ukraine expected to attend.
"Moral support is needed," the mustachioed paramilitary leader said in a recent video address.
"The war is continuing." In an apparent attempt to deflect attention, pro-Kremlin figures are organising a third march, along Moscow's prominent main Tverskaya Street, to express solidarity with the authorities.
The government has been seeking to pit the nationalists against each other in order to sideline them, said analyst Fyodor Krashenninikov.
"The authorities have done to the nationalist movement what they always have done to undesirable public forces which are threatening to become dangerous," Krashenninikov wrote in Vedomosti liberal daily.
But observers said the main danger for the Kremlin came not from a motley collection of nationalist groups but rather from a growing number of ordinary Russians sympathising with the cause.
"It is a new nationalism, a nationalism of thousands of people who have fought in a war in Donbass (in rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine)," Yegor Prosvirnin, the founder of Russian nationalist website Sputnik & Pogrom, said in written comments to AFP.
"It is a nationalism of ordinary people demanding that Chechens be ousted, a nationalism of hundreds of thousands of people who helped raise money for Donbass...This is the main challenge for the Russian Federation."