WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration and its European allies were toughening their sanctions against Russia this week, a somewhat different tone was being set in St. Petersburg, where Russian President Vladimir Putin was seen wrapping former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in a bearhug.
A photo of the embrace — taken at a lavish 70th birthday party for Schroder hosted by a subsidiary of the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom — made front pages across Europe on Tuesday and caused the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel no small amount of embarrassment.
Merkel's government quickly distanced itself from Schroder, now a top official at a German-Russian company that operates a gas pipeline between the two countries. But the picture served to highlight the cozy relationship between the Kremlin and Germany's energy interests — one that forms a major obstacle to President Barack Obama's efforts to present a solid, unified Western front in the face of Putin's aggression in Ukraine.
The administration has been upfront about the reality that Europe has a lot more to lose from sanctions against Russia than does the United States.
Germany relies on Russia for more than a third of its natural gas and oil supplies. Britain is anxious about banking-sector sanctions. France, whose defense industry is in the midst of completing a $1.6 billion ship contract with Russia, worries about defense sanctions. The Mediterranean countries are concerned about luxury goods and the Nordic countries about timber.
Yet the ongoing turmoil in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militants Tuesday stormed the regional administration building in Luhansk while Ukrainian police stood and watched, has steadily eroded European reluctance to seek stronger sanctions.
Germany is considered essential to any attempt to pressure Moscow through sanctions. Merkel will meet with Obama in Washington this week.