Germany's relations with Russia were never likely to be as cozy under Chancellor Angela Merkel as under her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who adopted a three-year-old Russian girl and, on his 60th birthday, invited Russian President Vladimir Putin home to celebrate.
But Merkel's tense exchanges with Putin over human rights and other contentious issues at a Europe-Russia summit meeting last week underscore how much has changed, at least in tone.
"Our talks today showed that we are not cooperating very intensively," Merkel, the current holder of the rotating presidency of the EU, said last Friday.
She also scolded Putin for barring protesters from the meeting, in the southeastern Russian city of Samara.
Russia, Putin replied frostily, plans to defend its interests "in the same professional way as our partners do."
Despite her blunt criticism, analysts say Merkel has generally walked a middle line as she tries to navigate this new phase in the German relationship with Russia -- one of the most sensitive, strategically important and historically fraught in the diplomatic world.
The hiccups between Russia and Germany are dominating political debate here, in part because they have laid bare a split in the governing grand coalition between Merkel's Christian Democrats and Schroeder's Social Democrats about how to handle Russia.
With Moscow determined to flex its muscles, the issue is provoking almost as much anxiety as the impasse between Germany and the US four years ago over the Iraq war.
The Christian Democrats favor a less cozy relationship with Russia, while the Social Democrats are eager to build on the ties Schroeder forged while in office.
Even in retirement, the former chancellor casts a long shadow. His former chief of staff, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is the foreign minister and has formulated a policy toward Russia deliberately reminiscent of "Ostpolitik," the eastward-facing policy pioneered by former German chancellor Willy Brandt in the early 1970s.
Schroeder is also the chairman of a German-Russian project to build a US$5 billion gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea -- a lucrative post that critics say effectively places him on Putin's payroll. It also reminds Germans of their heavy dependence on Russia for imported fuel.
A leading Social Democratic politician, Peter Struck, said recently in an interview that Germany should keep the US and Russia at "an equal distance." That draws criticism from some of Merkel's advisers, who prefer to focus on rebuilding the trans-Atlantic relationship.
"We have to make it clear there is no reasonable doubt about which camp we are in," said Eckart von Klaeden, a foreign policy spokesman in parliament for the Christian Democrats who advises Merkel. "We are in NATO. We are in the European Union."
Von Klaeden characterized Russia as a nation of "shrinking democracy and civil rights" and said that while good relations were important, "we should not accept behavior that is not reasonable."
Merkel's background, analysts say, has given her a dry-eyed view of Russia. A physicist who speaks Russian and grew up in East Germany, she has put stronger relations between the EU and Russia high on her list of priorities. But she has refused to gloss over Russia's human-rights record, as Schroeder often did.
"Germany is still trying to salvage some kind of a strategic partnership with Russia, while a majority of European countries question whether that even makes sense anymore," said Alexander Rahr, an expert on Russia at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
"We have a long tradition of quarrels within the German political elite about how to handle Russia," he said.
But that, he said, is not as big a problem as Russia's relations with other members of the EU. Poland and Estonia have clashed bitterly with Moscow over issues like its ban on Polish meat and the removal of a Soviet-era statue in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.
With France and Britain making the transition to new leaders -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Tony Blair's heir, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, whom analysts view as more trans-Atlantic and less European in orientation than their predecessors -- Merkel is likely to be Russia's main European interlocutor.
But German domestic politics may make it increasingly difficult for her to maintain a balance between East and West. The Social Democrats are already using Russia policy to set themselves apart from their coalition partners.
"We have to think about what stage Russia is in now, and from this point of view to offer new possibilities to Russia," said Gert Weisskirchen, a foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats. "If you listen to Eckart von Klaeden, he's not thinking in terms of history."
The Social Democrats plan to give a safe parliamentary constituency to Steinmeier, the foreign minister, a career civil servant, setting him up as a potential challenger to Merkel.
The divisions within Germany over Russia can be seen in its reaction to the George W. Bush administration's plan to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia has harshly criticized the plan, saying it would jeopardize its strategic defenses. Putin even threatened to pull out of a treaty on conventional forces in Europe as retaliation.
Merkel urged the US to engage in a broader consultation about the system with its allies, while Steinmeier publicly fretted that it would kick off a new arms race in Europe.
Some analysts fault the US for failing to articulate a clear rationale for the missile defense system. That, they say, has aggravated the suspicion of the US among some Germans and has, in turn, deepened the gulf between the pro-US and pro-Russian camps here.
"All the various differences within Germany are coalescing around Germany's relationship with Russia," said John Kornblum, a former US ambassador to Germany who now works as a banker in Berlin.
"The question is," he said, "will Germany try to do what it has always done: perform a balancing act?"
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