BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany may have to accept Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine as a "permanent provisional arrangement," the head of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) told a newspaper chain in comments published on Saturday.
FDP chief Christian Lindner underscored the importance of good ties with Moscow for Germany and the European Union, and said it might be necessary to "encapsulate" the Crimea issue in order to offer Russian President Vladimir Putin face-saving options to change his policies.
Germany has condemned Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for anti-government separatists in eastern Ukraine, leading Europe in maintaining economic sanctions against Moscow.
"We have to get out of the dead-end sitution," Lindner told the Funke Mediengruppe newspaper chain. "To break a taboo, I fear that we must see the Crimea as a permanent provisional arrangement, at least for now."
The comments drew immediate fire from Germany's Russia policy coordinator, Gernot Erler, a member of the Social Democrats (SPD), and the head of Germany's pro-environment Greens.
Pollsters say the FDP is poised to reenter parliament after the Sept. 24 elections after dropping below the requisite five-percent threshold in 2013.
It is seen as a possible coalition partner for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, who want to govern without the current junior partner, the SPD, who also have traditionally favoured a more conciliatory approach to Russia.
Erler told Funke Mediengruppe that Europeans had agreed to focus on ending the violence in eastern Ukraine before tackling the issue of Crimea in a political process at a later point.
"It would be helpful if Mr. Lindner would also stick to this agreement," he said. "A common European approach is imperative, especially in light of President (Donald) Trump's withdrawal from the previous consensus approach of the West."
Lindner said he backed continued support for the NATO alliance and strong ties to the United States, but called for more creativity in relations with Russia given its importance to German and European security and economic well-being.
He also called for a more nuanced approach to reducing sanctions against Russia and said even positive interim steps toward implementing the Minsk accords should be rewarded.
Erler said there was no way to ease sanctions unless a ceasefire was implemented.
Greens co-leader Cem Ozdemir, also seen as a possible coalition partner for Merkel, also blasted Lindner's comments.
"This is the wrong path for a responsible and strong German foreign policy," Ozdemir said.
The latest polls show Merkel's Christian Democrats with an 15-point lead over the SPD, with the FDP, Greens, far-left Left party and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany parties all garnering around eight percent support.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Bernard Orr