GERMAN Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she is not satisfied with the progress of talks about the situation in eastern Ukraine, after a meeting yesterday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking after the two met for talks in Sochi, Russia, Merkel said there are still fundamental differences of opinion, emphasising that Germany believes in the democratic legitimacy of the Ukrainian government.

“We are of differing opinions about the cause of the conflict,” she said, but added that the “Normandy Format” meetings of Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France is still the best forum for the talks.

She said that all sides want to prevent a further escalation of the conflict and that the Normandy talks had helped.

In her first trip to Russia in two years, the pair also discussed the civil war in Syria, and Merkel asked Putin to help protect the right of gays in Chechnya following reports that they are persecuted there.

She told reporters after the talks: “I asked President Putin to use his influence to protect these minority rights.”

Merkel said she wanted to “keep trying to find solutions” to global problems and that Moscow has an important role to play.

The Russian President used the opportunity to deny that Moscow ever interferes in elections in other countries.

In what was at times a tense appearance of the two world leaders, Putin said accusations of meddling in last year’s US presidential election were “simply rumours” being used as part of the political fight in Washington.

Speaking during the joint news conference, he also denied interfering in European elections.

US intelligence agencies say they have definitive evidence that Moscow was behind the hacking of Democratic email accounts, with the aim of benefiting Donald Trump’s campaign and harming his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

Merkel said she was confident that Germany could weather any disinformation campaign targeting its upcoming election.

Asked about the threat during the news conference, she cited two recent incidents of what she described as “gross misinformation”.

In one instance, Russian media and the foreign minister claimed that a 13-year-old girl of Russian origin had been kidnapped and raped by asylum-seekers in Berlin, and that German authorities were covering up the case.

Police later determined the girl had made up the kidnapping, although a man in his 20s was charged with sexual abuse of a minor because she was below the age of consent.

Merkel said Germany would take “decisive measures” if it believed there was foreign meddling in the election, adding it was well-known that “hybrid warfare plays a role in Russia’s military doctrine”.

Her visit to Sochi was her first trip to Russia in two years, as relations between the two countries remain strained in large part over the unresolved conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Merkel and Putin last met in Germany in October for talks aimed at reviving the stalled peace process. The deal brokered by Germany and France in 2015 has helped reduce the scale of fighting between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces, but violence has continued and attempts to reach a political settlement have failed.

The two leaders heatedly disagreed on the cause of the conflict but both confirmed their support for the peace agreement negotiated in Minsk, Belarus.

Putin also re-iterated his call for an unbiased investigation into the chemical weapons attack on a Syrian town which took place last month.

More than 80 people were killed in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which is held by rebel forced opposed to Putin’s ally in Syria, President Bashar Assad.

An examination of victims’ bodies found evidence that Sarin gas had been used, a colourless, odourless liquid nerve agent.

Whilst both Syria and Russia have denied that the country’s Government carried out the chemical attack, it has become a major international incident.

Earlier this month, Merkel had labelled it a “barbaric act”, and said there were signs that Assad’s regime was responsible for the incident.

It was one of many disagreements colouring this crucial meeting.