BERLIN 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. Petersburg.
A spokesman for Schroeder confirmed he was in the Russian 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 honor 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 of Schroeder's meeting with Putin. "It should be clear to everyone that Mr. Schroeder left active politics some time ago."
Publication of pictures of Schroeder hugging Putin comes at a time of high tension between the West and Russia over Ukraine. They also underscore Germany's ambivalence about new sanctions on Russia.
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.
The European Union on Tuesday imposed asset freezes and travel bans on 15 Russians and Ukrainians. The United States had also imposed new sanctions on allies of Putin on Monday.
Sometimes criticized as Putin's apologist, Schroeder has been the Russian leader's best friend in the West since both were ostracized 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 conservatives, said: "I found the pictures alienating. I hope he used the opportunity to talk to him 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 Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
"The chancellor and foreign minister have tried to help stabilize Ukraine for weeks and keep the EU together while Putin is trying to destabilize Ukraine and divide the EU," he said. "Pictures like this play into the hands of Putin's propaganda."
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.
Schroeder, the former leader of Germany's center-left Social Democrat (SPD), which is aligned with Merkel's conservatives, faced heavy criticism though some hoped he would use his influence on Putin to reduce the tensions over Ukraine.
"We ought to use every opportunity we can to talk to Putin," said Klaus von Dohnanyi, a former mayor of Hamburg and an elder SPD statesman. "Because words are better than weapons to try to find a reasonable solution for Ukraine."
But the 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 alongside pictures of Schroeder waiting for Putin's car to arrive then embracing the Russian president.
Schroeder could not carry on with business as usual when a government including the SPD was 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."
N-TV news network said Schroeder had "lost all credibility" and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper found it "ghoulish" to "hug his friend Vladimir when German soldiers (observers in east Ukraine) are being held hostage by pro-Putin fanatics".
(Reporting by Noah Barkin; Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Stephen Brown and Giles Elgood)