Russian leader Vladimir Putin has joined forces with Germany against the US over a new gas pipeline.
His weekend trip, which included a visit to Austria, also struck a symbolic blow against EU diplomatic sanctions over his invasion of Ukraine.
German chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin defended the Nord Stream 2 gas project at their meeting in Meseberg Castle, outside Berlin, on Saturday (18 August) in Putin's first bilateral visit to Germany since the invasion in 2014.
"In connection with Ukraine, we will also talk about gas transit. In my view, even if Nord Stream 2 exists, Ukraine has a role to play in gas transit to Europe," Merkel said ahead of their three-and-a-half hour talks.
The project will "perfect the European gas transport system and minimise transit risks. It will ensure supply for growing consumption in Europe", Putin said.
"Nord Stream 2 is an exclusively economic project. It does not close any possibilities for transit of Russian gas through Ukraine," he added.
"Germany is one of the largest buyers of Russian energy resources … consumption of Russian gas is growing from year to year. Last year, it increased by 13 percent," he also said.
The pipeline, which is already being built, will concentrate 80 percent of Russian gas sales to Europe on the German route from 2020.
Its critics say it will entrench European energy dependence on Russia and help Moscow to cut off Western allies, including Ukraine, for strategic reasons in future.
The Merkel-Putin meeting came amid US preparations to impose financial sanctions on the five EU energy firms involved in the project.
It also came amid a wider transatlantic rift after US leader Donald Trump accused Germany of being "captured" by Russia due to the pipeline deal and after he imposed trade tariffs on EU metals exports, prompting a trade war.
Merkel and Putin declined to take questions from press, but Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, underlined the idea that Germany and Russia were taking a common stance against the US in what amounted to a symbolic reversal of the prior Western alliance against Russia's aggressive behaviour.
They agreed that it was "necessary to take steps to shield it [the pipeline] from potential attacks from third countries [the US]," Peskov said.
They also shared worries about the "unpredictability of decisions, especially in the area of tariffs, taken by some states [the US]" and "the concern that such decisions may have in the end negative consequences for the international trade relations system," he added.
For her part, Merkel, who recently said Nord Stream 2 was a "political" project, did not challenge Putin's assertion that it was "exclusively economic".
She said on Ukraine that the so-called Minsk ceasefire accord remained the basis for ending the conflict and lamented the fact "that we still do not have a stable ceasefire" there.
But she declined to note that Minsk called for Russian forces to leave Ukraine before the EU lifted economic sanctions on Russia or to blame Putin for the ongoing hostilities in east Ukraine.
Putin also made a show of unity with Germany on protecting the Iran nuclear arms control deal against Trump's decision to walk away from the accord.
He added that if the EU were to pay for the post-war reconstruction of Syria, where his forces have helped to drive people to flee by bombarding opposition-held areas, then it would benefit Merkel by allowing Syrian refugees to go home.
"This [the influx of refugees] is potentially a huge burden for Europe … That's why we have to do everything to get these people back home," Putin said, amid a political backlash against Merkel by anti-immigrant parties in Germany.
The Meseberg meeting came on the heels of Putin's visit to Austria to attend the wedding of its foreign minister, Karin Kneissl.
Russian state broadcaster, RT, published a video of her courtesying to the Russian president and then dancing with him at her party.
The trip was described as a "private" visit by Putin, who brought 100 Cossack singers to perform at the event, even though he also held brief "working" talks in his limousine with Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
But Austrian opposition politicians lashed out against the visit, noting that Austria, which currently holds the EU presidency, had a special responsibility to uphold European foreign policy of isolating Russia over its Ukraine war.
Joerg Leichtfried, the spokesman of the opposition centre-left SPO party, called the wedding spectacle "strange, naive and capable of causing lasting damage to Austria's foreign policy position".
It was "symbolic and harmful to court the Russian president in this manner", he said.
Green MEP Michel Reimon called for Kenissl, who was nominated to her post by the pro-Russian and far-right FPO party in Austria's ruling coalition, to resign.
The Putin wedding party and Austria's claims that it had no political meaning gave rise to a "sad smile", Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin said.
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