A photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin dancing arm in arm with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at her wedding is drawing criticism from opponents of Moscow.
Mr Putin, who had been invited to the ceremony, arrived on Saturday (Australian time) in a car carrying a bouquet of flowers and accompanied by a troupe of Cossack singers booked to serenade the newlyweds.
He was on a stopover on his way to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel outside Berlin.
Photographs showed Ms Kneissl, 53, smiling in a long white and cream “dirndl” dress and talking to Mr Putin as they danced in a vineyard in southern Styria province, the venue of her wedding to entrepreneur Wolfgang Meilinger. Mr Putin was pictured listening to her intently.
The invitation surprised many in Vienna and Moscow, particularly at a time when the European Union is at odds with Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and other issues.
Ms Kneissl – a polyglot Middle East expert without political affiliation – was appointed to her job by the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which has a co-operation agreement with Mr Putin’s United Russia party.
FPO leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache has expressed support for Russia and called for sanctions against Moscow to be lifted.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his conservatives, who control Austria’s EU policy, have said Austria will toe the EU line – though they have also pointed to Austria’s history of neutrality and its relatively warm relations with Russia. Mr Kurz also attended the wedding.
Mr Strache, who joined Austria’s governing coalition last year, praised Ms Kneissl on Saturday as a “bridge builder” as he congratulated the married couple and wished them “all the luck in the world and eternal love”.
The international coverage of Mr Putin’s visit would bring priceless publicity, Mr Strache added. “A better advertisement for Austria, its wonderful nature, dreamlike landscape and real life hospitality cannot exist!”
Jorg Leichtfried from the opposition Social Democrats tweeted that Austria’s current presidency of the Council of the European Union put it in an especially delicate spot given tensions between Mr Putin and the West.
“All the more symbolic and harmful to court the Russian president in this manner.”
No clear-cut progress in Germany
Mr Putin later travelled to Germany on Sunday (Australian time) to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the diplomatic situation in Iran, and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that has drawn US ire.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters no agreements were reached, but the meeting had simply been intended to “check the watches” after Ms Merkel’s meeting with Mr Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in May.
Ties between the two countries have been strained since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014.
The two leaders both viewed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a purely commercial venture, despite persistent fire by the US and Ukrainian governments, Mr Peskov said.
“That’s why it is necessary to take measures against possible non-competitive and illegal attacks from the third countries in order to complete this project eventually,” he told reporters. It was not immediately clear what such “measures” could entail.
At the start of the talks, Ms Merkel underscored her expectation that Ukraine should continue to have a role in gas transit to Europe, and welcomed the start of discussions among the European Union, Ukraine and Russia on that issue.
Mr Putin said such a move had to make sense from a business perspective.
The United States is pressing Berlin to halt the pipeline that will carry gas from Russia under the Baltic Sea, arguing it will increase Germany’s dependence on Russia for energy.
Ukraine fears the pipeline will allow Russia to cut it off from the gas transit business, while Germany’s eastern European neighbours worry about Russian encroachment.
Mr Peskov said the threat of possible US sanctions against companies involved in the project was not discussed by the leaders.
Standing beside Mr Putin before the talks, Ms Merkel said both countries – but especially Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council – had a responsibility to try to solve the ongoing fighting in Ukraine and Syria.
She said she also planned to raise potentially thorny human rights issues with Mr Putin, and discuss bilateral relations.
Both leaders raised concerns about Syria and the plight of the many refugees created by the seven-year-old war.