Vladimir Putin Gerhard Schroeder Photo
Russian president Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Schroeder became friends during the latter's years as chancellorReuters

A photo depicting former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hugging and laughing with Vladimir Putin, which was published as Berlin and the EU slapped more sanctions on the Russian president's inner circle over Ukraine, has caused embarrassment in Germany.

Schroeder was accused of "making a mockery of Berlin's foreign policy" in a commentary piece by Der Spiegel magazine. The article included a picture published on Monday of the two warmly greeting each other at Schroeder's 70th birthday party earlier in April.

"In difficult times like these, a former German leader should, at least publicly, keep a safe distance from Putin," the magazine wrote.

"Hugging and chumming it up at a party in St Petersburg against the backdrop of current events is simply tasteless."

The two became friends during Schroeder's seven years at the helm of Europe's largest economy.

The photowas published as the EU was finalising a list of Russian politicians, Ukrainian separatists and military chiefs who would be hit by travel bans and asset freezes over their alleged role in stirring up turmoil in eastern Ukraine.

The German government quickly distanced itself from Schroeder, saying he was not in Russia on behalf of current chancellor Angela Merkel.

"He does not represent the German government," a senior German government official told Reuters. "It should be clear to everyone that Mr Schroeder left active politics some time ago."

A former leader of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) Schroeder was chancellor from 1998-2005, when he narrowly lost to Merkel.

The SPD is a junior coalition partner in Merkel's government.

Schroeder was in St Petersburg for a meeting of German-Russian gas pipeline operator Nord Stream AG, of which he became board chairman upon leaving public office.