Russian and German firms have signed a deal in Berlin to build a natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to western Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder witnessed the signing by Russia's state-run natural gas firm Gazprom and two private German companies, BASF and EON.

Mr. Putin arrived in Berlin earlier Thursday for a brief visit.

The 2,000-kilometer long pipeline will run from north of Saint Petersburg to the northern coast of Germany. It will bypass current routes through Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.

Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski has criticized the plan. He accused Germany of making a major decision without input from the rest of the European Union.

Mr. Putin is also meeting with Germany's opposition Christian Democratic leader Angel Merkel, who is challenging Mr. Schroeder for chancellor in the September 18 parliamentary elections.

Some information for this report provided by AFP and AP.