BERLIN (Reuters) - The German government and media distanced themselves from ex Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Tuesday after pictures depicting him in an embrace with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on Monday evening were published.
Schroeder's office had no comment on the pictures, which according to the media reports were taken outside the Yusupov Palace where Schroeder 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 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 in a warm embrace with Putin comes at a time of high tension between the West and Russia. 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 seen in the West as reluctant to ratchet up sanctions against Moscow. Opinion polls show Germans oppose trade sanctions.
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.
The European Union on Tuesday imposed asset freezes and travel bans on 15 Russians, including a deputy prime minister. [ID:nB5N0N100E] The United States had also imposed new sanctions on allies of Putin on Monday.
Schroeder, the former leader of Germany's centre-left Social Democrat (SPD) party that shares power with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, faced heavy criticism in German media on Tuesday for the Putin meeting although some voices pointed out that they hoped Schroeder could use his influence on Putin to defuse the tensions over Ukraine.
"Schroeder celebrates his birthday with Putin and makes Germany's foreign policy look absurd," wrote Roland Nelles in a commentary for Der Spiegel magazine's online edition, which published a series of pictures showing Schroeder first waiting for Putin's car to arrive and embracing the Russian president.
"The ex-chancellor is mistaken to think he can carry on with business-as-usual as if nothing has happened. The German government, which his party belongs to, is doing all it can right now to stop his friend Vladimir from pursuing power-hungry policies. In times like this, a former German government leader should keep his distance."
Heiner Bremer, senior political correspondent for Germany's N-TV news network, also condemned Schroeder.
"It shows Schroeder has no instincts and no taste for such a meeting at a time when Putin has annexed Crimea and is trying to redraw Eastern Europe's borders," Bremer said in a commentary. "He has lost all credibility."
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung online also criticised Schroeder, adding his SPD party in Germany was left speechless.
"There is something ghoulish to pictures of a smiling Schroeder as he hugs his friend Vladimir at the same time German army soldiers have been taken hostage by fanatic Putin admirers," wrote Thomas Holl of the FAZ in a commentary, referring to observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe who are being held in Slaviansk.
(Reporting by Noah Barkin; Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Stephen Brown and Giles Elgood)