The German government distanced itself from former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder amid media criticism after pictures were published showing him embracing Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg.
The pictures come at a time of high tension between the West and Russia over Ukraine and also underscore German ambivalence about imposing new sanctions on Moscow, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel's criticism of Putin's actions in the crisis.
A spokesman for Schroeder confirmed on Tuesday that he was in Russia's second city a day earlier for a shareholders' meeting of Nord Stream, the Russian-German pipeline joint venture he chairs. But spokesman Albrecht Funk would not say why Schroeder met Putin.
German media reports said the grainy pictures of Schroeder locked in a bear hug with Putin were taken late on Monday evening outside the Yusupov Palace, where he was attending a belated celebration in honour of his 70th birthday on April 7.
"He does not represent the German government," a senior German government official said when asked about the pictures. "It should be clear to everyone that Mr Schroeder left active politics some time ago."
Germany, which relies heavily on Russia for natural gas supplies, has been trying to defuse tensions over Ukraine and is seen in the West as reluctant to ratchet up sanctions against Moscow. Opinion polls show Germans oppose trade sanctions.
Schroeder, a Social Democrat whose party is now in coalition with Merkel's conservatives, has been the Russian leader's best friend in the West since both were ostracised by US president George W Bush for opposing the 2003 Iraq invasion.