Berlin distances itself from ex-leader after Putin party

File photo of Russia's President Putin being welcomed by German Chancellor Schroeder upon his arrival at the Chancellery in Berlin, September 8, 2005.

BERLIN - The German government distanced itself from former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Tuesday after he was spotted exchanging hugs in Saint Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin as the Ukraine crisis rages.

A senior advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel said Schroeder, her Social Democrat predecessor in office, had "no mandate whatsoever from the government" to meet with Putin after they attended a party together.

"It is clear that he has not been active in politics for some time," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

An AFP correspondent saw Putin and Schroeder, longtime personal friends, greeting each other warmly amid Russia's worst standoff with the West since the Cold War.

Putin arrived in his luxury government car at the historic Yusupov palace, an official residence in Saint Petersburg, around 11:00 pm as Schroeder stood waiting to meet the Russian president.

The two smiled and embraced before heading indoors to join other guests for a closed-door event. Media reports said the occasion was a belated celebration of Schroeder's 70th birthday on April 7.

Schroeder, who was chancellor from 1998 to 2005, is now the head of the shareholders' committee in Nord Stream AG, which runs the Nord Stream pipeline that carries Russian gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea.

He was nominated to the post just weeks after leaving office by Russia's gas giant Gazprom, which holds the majority stake in the pipeline project that was launched in 2005 and began transporting gas in 2011.

Schroeder and his wife have also adopted two Russian children, reportedly with Putin's help.

He has sparked outrage in Germany for his defence of the Russian president, whom he has described in the past as a "flawless democrat", even as Moscow faces isolation over the Ukraine crisis.

Last month Schroeder compared Moscow's annexation of Crimea to NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999, a parallel Merkel rejected as "shameful".

And he has spoken out against European Union sanctions on Russia.

Russia's relations with European countries, including Germany, have soured in recent months over Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

The EU and the United States on Monday introduced a fresh wave of sanctions, with the EU adding 15 more people to a blacklist accused of fomenting chaos in Ukraine.

Schroeder's Social Democrats, now junior partners in Merkel's "grand coalition" government, have been at pains to distance themselves from their former leader as the turmoil in Ukraine mounts.

Another senior German official, when asked whether Schroeder could be used to help "