By Alexandra Hudson
MOSCOW (Reuters) - While others in Europe debate how best to contain Vladimir Putin, Germany's foreign minister is on a mission to revive damaged ties with Moscow with a combination of public flattery and behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier's Social Democrats (SPD), junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's new coalition, enjoy better chemistry with Russia's leaders than her previous center-right government and he hopes this can open channels on Syria and Ukraine and help Brussels and Moscow to see eye-to-eye.
But Germany may be overestimating the leverage its trade ties give it over Russia and risks appearing naive if it mutes criticism of Putin without influencing his policies in return.
Relations between Russia and the European Union have been strained to the limit by Moscow's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and mutual accusations of meddling in Ukraine. President Putin's crackdown on dissent at home has dismayed the West, once hopeful of democratic change in Russia.
European leaders stayed away in droves from the opening of the Winter Olympics in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi this month and Brussels cancelled a dinner with Putin at a January summit to express its anger at the tug-of-war over Ukraine.
In this context, Steinmeier - an old friend of Moscow - has picked a risky path by making overtures to Putin.
"Nothing is possible without Russia," was Steinmeier's message during a two-day trip to Moscow last week. The other message was that Berlin wanted to set a "positive agenda" with Russia rather than just bashing it for rights abuses.
Since returning in December to a post he held in Merkel's first 'grand coalition' with the SPD from 2005-2009, Steinmeier has pledged a more muscular foreign and security policy - and Merkel has delegated the tricky matter of Russia to the SPD.
His trip came just weeks after his predecessor Guido Westerwelle of the liberal Free Democrats stood in solidarity with Ukraine's opposition in Kiev, further angering a Kremlin irked by months of German criticism.
Westerwelle, who is openly gay, had been very critical of Russia's controversial ban on homosexual "propaganda".
The 58-year-old Steinmeier was rewarded with a meeting with Putin, a rare honor for a visiting foreign minister. The two men forged good personal ties when Steinmeier worked for the SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Merkel's predecessor.
Schroeder cultivated a hearty, macho rapport with Putin, once referring to him as a "flawless democrat". Schroeder now works as chairman of Gazprom's Nord Stream gas pipeline and has adopted two children from Russia.
By contrast, Merkel has never enjoyed warm relations with Putin, a German-speaking former KGB agent who spent five years in Dresden in East Germany's twilight years. Merkel herself grew up in East Germany and speaks Russian.
"Russia is not terribly important to Merkel. It counts more for Steinmeier," said Alexander Rahr, research director at the German-Russia forum in Berlin.
"She thinks she can't achieve very much with Moscow... and she doesn't have this affinity for Russia which many Social Democrats do who grew up in the years of 'Ostpolitik'," said Rahr, referring to the SPD-led policy of greater engagement with Germany's communist neighbors to the east during the 1970s.
"Merkel appears to have outsourced Russia policy, although she will still have ultimate control... She trusts Steinmeier and doesn't want to fight in the front line for Russia."
Putin still left Steinmeier in the dark for hours about whether he would actually get the audience last Friday, with the Russian president finally meeting him just when the German minister was due to meet rights groups working in Moscow.
The limits of Steinmeier's scope for success were evident during his trip. An idea floated by the Germans that the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) could mediate in Ukraine's political crisis was essentially ignored.
At a joint news conference with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov, who Steinmeier calls "Dear Sergei", Lavrov slammed the EU for continuing to send emissaries to Kiev and telling it to take sides, leaving the German minister uncomfortable.
Steinmeier himself, in his inaugural speech last December, said it was "outrageous" that Moscow had exploited Ukraine's dire economic needs to persuade it to drop an association agreement with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia.
Two weeks ago, Steinmeier met Ukrainian opposition leaders in Munich and they return to Germany on Monday to visit Merkel.
Steinmeier wants to see Russia and the EU both using their influence to encourage dialogue between protesters and the Kiev government and working towards a peaceful solution.
Rahr said it was "scandalous" for the EU to reduce its last summit with Russia to just a few hours, adding: "We can't just negate Russia and pretend it doesn't exist."
"Germany's position is right. It will be difficult and we will never push through our own views ... but we have to speak to Russia and deal sensibly with them. Thank goodness Germany has realized this in contrast to some other EU states."
In Moscow, experts said there would be relief that at least one important EU country has tempered its lecturing tone.
(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke in Berlin and Gabriela Bacynska in Moscow; Editing by Stephen Brown, Noah Barkin and Gareth Jones)