Russian President Vladimir Putin has said a planned trans-Baltic natural gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany is exclusively an economic project, in his latest remarks over a controversial venture that has divided Europe and raised concerns in Washington.
Speaking alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday, Putin said the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would not “close the door to shipping gas through Ukraine”.
The comments came ahead of a meeting between the two leaders at a German government guest house outside the capital, Berlin.
Merkel and Putin were expected to discuss topics including Nord Stream 2, as well as the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria in their second bilateral meeting in three months. In May, Merkel travelled to Sochi to meet her Russian counterpart.
Nord Stream 2 was the subject of fierce criticism by US President Donald Trump at a July NATO summit, when he said the venture left Germany’s government “totally controlled” by and “captive” to Russia.
Merkel has backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline which, if completed, could double the amount of gas that is already flowing directly from Russia to Germany through the existing Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
Speaking on Saturday, Merkel said “Ukraine must continue to play a role in the transit of gas to Europe once Nord Stream 2 is in place”.
Ukraine’s government has been a fierce opponent of the project.
“It is certainly a geopolitical project aimed to weaken Ukraine. To do everything to leave Ukraine without profits from the existing gas transport system.” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in July.
Speaking ahead of their meeting, the leaders touched on the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, where fighting between pro-Russian separatists and forces loyal to the Ukrainian government has killed more than 10,000 since 2014.
Merkel said she and Putin would discuss the prospects of a UN peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine.
“We must acknowledge that we do not have a permanent ceasefire,” the chancellor said.
Putin also spoke about international reconstruction efforts and the humanitarian situation in Syria.
“It’s important to help those areas that the refugees can return to,” said Putin, whose decision for Russia to military intervene in Syria’s conflict tilted the odds in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“I think it’s in everyone’s interests, including Europe’s.”
Merkel has previously insisted Germany would not contribute to Syria’s reconstruction until a political settlement ending the war has been reached.
Earlier on Saturday, Putin attended the wedding of Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl in the small town of Gamlitz.
His invitation was criticised by Austrian opposition politicians due to tensions between Russia and the European Union over issues including Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Michel Reimon, an Austrian Green member of the European parliament (MEP) called on Kneissl to resign from her post.
“Vladimir Putin is the most aggressive foreign adversary of the EU. It is completely unacceptable for Kneissl to invite Putin privately to a party,” he told Austrian newspaper Der Standard.
Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of Kneissl’s far-fright Freedom Party (FPO), praised the foreign minister as a “bridge builder”.
Putin spent around an hour at the wedding and gave the newlyweds a cold press oil machine and a landscape painting depicting “where the groom hails from” as a present, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.