Russian President Vladimir Putin has held wide-ranging talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the Ukraine conflict, Europe's response to the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and the construction of a pipeline bringing gas from Russia to Germany.
Putin said Russian natural gas may still flow to neighboring Ukraine even after the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which will carry Russian gas to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.
"A suspension of the transit of Russia gas through Ukraine is not assumed," Putin said after talks with Merkel in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on May 18. "Supplies will continue if they are economically viable."
Merkel said that "Germany believes Ukraine's role as a transit country should continue after the construction of Nord Stream 2... it has a strategic importance."
She added that Germany was ready to help ensure such an outcome.
Earlier on May 18, Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev welcomed Merkel -- who is on her first visit to Russia in a year -- at a summer residence in Sochi, with Putin presenting her with a bouquet of flowers.
Merkel's trip to Russia comes amid tense relations between Berlin and Moscow.
Germany has been at the forefront of the European Union's push for sanctions against Russia since Moscow seized Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014 and threw its support behind separatists in eastern Ukraine, helping start a war that has killed more than 10,300 people.
However, despite taking a hard line against Russia in recent years, Merkel has defended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which carries Russian natural gas to Germany but bypasses Ukraine, arguing that Germany badly needs to secure its gas supplies.
The $11 billion project would double the amount of natural gas Russia can funnel to Western Europe from newly tapped reserves in Siberia.
In recent months, Germany gave its final approval for Russia to expand the pipeline, although Kyiv has argued that the project undermines EU sanctions against Russia. The pipeline is due to go online at the end of next year.
A senior U.S. diplomat has also warned that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline raises security concerns and risks triggering U.S. sanctions.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Sandra Oudkirk, an energy policy expert at the State Department, said on a visit to Berlin May 17 that the United States opposes the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and could impose sanctions on it because of its potential to increase Russia's "malign influence" in Europe.
"We are exerting as much persuasive power as we possibly can" to stop the project through diplomatic means first, she said, but she noted that Congress has given the government authority to impose sanctions on such Russian pipeline projects if necessary.
Putin said on May 18 that he did not see anything new in the position of U.S. President Donald Trump, saying the president was a "strong businessman."
"I think he is promoting his business interest to sell U.S. liquefied natural gas on the European market," said the Russian president.
With Europe's largest economy, Germany is the world's largest importer of natural gas and it is planning to increase reliance on gas to generate power as it phases out its nuclear power plants.
The German government has said that at a time of strong disagreements between Russia and the West over Ukraine and other matters, Berlin views the pipeline as well as a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran as "islands of cooperation" with Moscow.
Trump announced on May 8 that Washington was leaving the agreement under which Iran curbed its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Germany, Britain and France, along with the other two signatories -- China and Russia -- have been scrambling to save the accord.
As well as the differences over the Nordstream project, Europe is also at odds with Washington over Trump's decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal. The 2015 nuclear deal aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief was signed between Iran and Russia, Britain, France, Germany, China, and the United States.
Moscow agrees with Europe's position to remain in the deal.
"Germany, Britain, France, and all our partners in the European Union continue to support this deal and remain in this deal and we know that a very specific situation arose that we Europeans need to discuss with Iran," Merkel said at the news conference. "I know that the deal is anything but perfect but it is better than no deal."
But Merkel said differences with Washington over the nuclear deal would not challenge the transatlantic relationship.
Ahead of Merkel's visit to Russia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Merkel to also use her meeting with Putin to press for the release of "wrongfully" held human rights activist Oyub Titiyev and to raise other "key human rights issues."
"Merkel’s principled voice has never been needed more than now," Wenzel Michalski, Germany director for the New York-based rights group, said in a May 16 statement. "She can use that voice to help free [Titiyev] and to make clear that the new level of repression in Russia will never be accepted as 'the new normal.'"
HRW said the "current Russian government has been the country’s most repressive since the Soviet era."
"The government has forcibly registered human rights and other civic groups that engage in public advocacy as 'foreign agents' if they accepted even the smallest amounts of foreign funding, prompting many to close and pushing others near bankruptcy," the groups said.
In the past 18 months, it also said, police have arrested "thousands of peaceful protesters and beaten many."
And in recent years, authorities have "unjustifiably prosecuted dozens of people for criminal offenses on the basis of social-media posts, online videos, media articles, and interviews, and shut down or blocked access to hundreds of websites and web pages."
With reporting by AP, dpa, AFP, and Reuters