Femen protest in Hanover (Femen.org)

Russian president Vladimir Putin has shrugged off a topless protest by Femen activists during his visit to the Hanover Trade Fair with the comment that he "liked the action".

Three members of the Ukrainian radical feminist group stripped off to the waist and chanted slogans calling Putin a "dictator" before they were dragged away by security men. One activist with F**k Putin" painted in Cyrillic on her back tried to push her way through to Putin who simply looked amused and even gave her two thumbs up as she approached.

His host, German chancellor Angela Merkel, said: "Whether one has to resort to such an emergency measure in Germany and can't say one's piece some other way, I have my doubts."

The Russian government urged Germany to punish Femen. "This is ordinary hooliganism and unfortunately it happens all over the world, in any city. One needs to punish [them]," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

But Putin was sanguine.

"As for the action, I liked it," he said. "You should be grateful to the girls, they are helping you make the fair more popular."

Merkel has criticised Putin for his crackdown on non-governmental organisations and said that Russia needed "an active civil society". Putin defended the raids on NGOs, which have been forced to register as "foreign agents" if they receive funds from outside the country, by saying that the flow of money is "alarming".

"Our citizens have the right to know where the money comes from," he said.

The chancellor has pledged to raise controversial subjects with Putin.