Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Wednesday in the heart of Siberia for talks on how to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions and on ways to ease anxiety about energy supply in Europe.
Merkel and Putin: Friendly but cautious
Officials from both countries said Putin and Merkel would address a wide range of bilateral and international issues during two days of talks, but it was clear that energy security would figure prominently on the agenda.
In comments carried by state media hours ahead of the meeting, Putin complained that Russia's ambition to become a major world energy supplier -- as well as play a larger role in global economic development -- was being intentionally obstructed by the West.
"Unfortunately, we come up against methods of unfair competition on the world market," Putin said, reiterating earlier comments by Russian energy officials who had threatened to intensify business with Asia.
German and Russian companies are currently building a gas pipeline
"Despite the high demand for energy resources, we are being blocked to the north, the south and the west on any pretext," Putin said. "We have to find outlets, to fit into the global development process."
Tensions between Russia and the European Union over energy policy have been on the rise this year after gas supplies to Europe were disrupted in January when Russia briefly cut supplies over a pricing dispute to Ukraine, where pipelines that serve Europe are located.
Since then Russia's state-run gas giant Gazprom, which provides around one-fourth of the gas supply to Europe, has warned that it expects to compete in European energy markets on the same terms as other companies. Gazprom has however declined to open its own monopoly to foreign competition.
"We will touch on all the issues of our cooperation," Putin said as he met Merkel for talks at a science library of Tomsk University, shortly after the German leader arrived in the central Siberian industrial city.
Merkels predecessor Gerhard Schröder and Putin were certainly closer
Putin, a fluent German speaker who worked as a KGB officer in East Germany, and Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and also speaks Russian, exchanged pleasantries in front of journalists as they prepared to sit down for their initial meeting.
Merkel was met at the university by the dean of the science college, a specialist in quantum chemistry.
"We talked about molecules," she told Putin afterwards.
"I hope that our chemistry will also generate a good atmosphere," a smiling Putin responded.
But Merkel, a trained physicist whose husband is a chemist, was not to be won over so easily.
"It's a little more complicated than complex molecules," she rejoined, cautiously.
After their first round of talks, Putin described the meeting as "intensive" while Merkel talked about a "broad strategic cooperation." They did not reveal details of the talks.
Discussi n g Ira n
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not giving up his nuclear goals
Officials from both countries said that diplomatic efforts to check Iran's nuclear program would also be addressed by the two leaders on Thursday.
Germany is one of three EU countries -- with Britain and France -- that back the United States in calls for quick and strong action by the UN Security Council aimed at compelling Iran to halt its uranium enrichment activities. However Russia, which is building Iran's first nuclear reactor, has said it will oppose efforts to impose international sanctions on Tehran until it has seen concrete proof that Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons.