* Former German chancellor pictured in embrace with Putin
* Schroeder blasted for meeting in German media
* Close Schroeder-Putin friendship followed Bush ostracism
(Adds reaction from German foreign minister)
By Erik Kirschbaum and Noah Barkin
BERLIN, April 29 The German government distanced
itself from former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Tuesday amid
an outpouring of media criticism after pictures were published
showing him embracing Russian President Vladimir Putin in St.
The pictures come at a time of high tension between the West
and Russia over Ukraine and also underscore German ambivalence
about imposing new sanctions on Moscow, despite Chancellor
Angela Merkel's criticism of Putin's actions in the crisis.
A spokesman for Schroeder confirmed he was in Russia's
second city on Monday for a shareholders' meeting of Nord Stream
AG, the Russian-German pipeline joint venture he chairs. But
spokesman Albrecht Funk would not say why Schroeder met Putin.
German media reports said the grainy pictures of Schroeder
locked in a bear hug with Putin were taken late on Monday
evening outside the Yusupov Palace, where he was attending a
belated celebration in honour of his 70th birthday on April 7.
"He does not represent the German government," a senior
German government official said when asked about the pictures.
"It should be clear to everyone that Mr. Schroeder left active
politics some time ago."
Germany, which relies heavily on Russia for natural gas
supplies, has been trying to defuse tensions over Ukraine and is
seen in the West as reluctant to ratchet up sanctions against
Moscow. Opinion polls show Germans oppose trade sanctions.
On Tuesday, the European Union imposed asset freezes and
travel bans on 15 Russians and Ukrainians. The
United States widened sanctions on allies of Putin on Monday.
Sometimes criticised as Putin's apologist, Schroeder, a
Social Democrat whose party is now in coalition with Merkel's
conservatives, has been the Russian leader's best friend in the
West since both were ostracised by U.S. President George W. Bush
for opposing the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Gerda Hasselfeldt, parliamentary leader of the Bavarian
Christian Social Union (CSU) which is aligned with Merkel's
party, said: "I found the pictures alienating. I hope he used
the opportunity to talk to (Putin) about the problems."
Andreas Schockenhoff, deputy parliamentary floor leader for
Merkel's party, said Schroeder risked undermining the German
government as well as his own protege, Foreign Minister
"The chancellor and foreign minister have tried to help
stabilise Ukraine for weeks and keep the EU together while Putin
is trying to destabilise Ukraine and divide the EU," he said.
"Pictures like this play into the hands of Putin's propaganda."
But Steinmeier, a fellow Social Democrat who served as
Schroeder's chief of staff, said in Copenhagen that his former
boss "has no government responsibilities and is therefore free
to decide when and where he celebrates his birthday".
Schroeder, chancellor from 1998-2005, has come under fire
before for his close relations with Putin. Schroeder became the
board chairman of a German-Russian pipeline joint venture with
gas monopoly Gazprom Nord Stream after leaving office.
Klaus von Dohnanyi, a former Social Democrat mayor of
Hamburg, said talking with Putin was good: "Words are better
than weapons to try to find a reasonable solution for Ukraine".
But the German media almost universally condemned Schroeder,
who in 2004 was asked if he thought Putin was a "flawless
democrat" and replied: "I am convinced he is." Putin celebrated
Schroeder's 60th birthday with the German leader in Hanover.
"Schroeder celebrates his birthday with Putin and makes
Germany's foreign policy look absurd," said an online commentary
for Der Spiegel magazine.
Schroeder cannot carry on with business as usual when the
government is trying to "stop his friend Vladimir from pursuing
power-hungry policies", it said. "At times like this a former
German leader must keep his distance."
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper found hugging
Putin "ghoulish" when German military observers from the
Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were
being held hostage by "pro-Putin fanatics" in Ukraine.
Four of seven OSCE observers being held by pro-Russian
separatists in eastern Ukraine are German. Berlin has asked
Moscow to use its influence to get them all freed.
(Editing by Stephen Brown and Gareth Jones)