The Kremlin has announced that Russian and Syrian air forces had stopped bombing Aleppo prior to an eight-hour "humanitarian pause" in the battered city
The Kremlin has announced that Russian and Syrian air forces had stopped bombing Aleppo prior to an eight-hour "humanitarian pause" in the battered city © Karam Al-Masri - AFP/File
The Kremlin has announced that Russian and Syrian air forces had stopped bombing Aleppo prior to an eight-hour
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Hollande, Merkel, Putin meet ahead of fresh Aleppo truce

Russia played down hopes of diplomatic progress over Ukraine at talks Wednesday between President Vladimir Putin and his German, French and Ukrainian counterparts in Berlin, where he also faced pressure over the Syrian conflict.

Host Chancellor Angela Merkel said the talks -- the first four-way summit for a year -- were aimed at "offering a brutally honest assessment" of progress on implementing the frayed Minsk peace accords for Ukraine.

"Things are stalled in many areas such as the ceasefire, political issues and humanitarian issues," she told reporters Tuesday.

"We have to seize every chance we have for progress. I have to say that we cannot expect a miracle but it is worth every effort at this point."

But the Kremlin poured cold water on hopes for headway toward a lasting resolution of the conflict.

"We do not expect any breakthroughs," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters ahead of Putin's trip, his first to the German capital since the Ukraine conflict erupted.

Putin has not visited the German capital since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, sending relations with the West plunging to their lowest point since the Cold War.

Russia's involvement in the Syrian civil war, which has deepened the diplomatic freeze, will also figure at the top of the agenda, Merkel said.

Speaking of the "disastrous" situation in the besieged city of Aleppo, Merkel said she and French President Francois Hollande would speak to Putin "about somehow alleviating people's suffering".

"Here too, we cannot expect miracles but it is essential to talk, even if the views are far apart," she said.

- Ending the devastation -

The gathering will be aimed at "giving the same message to Vladimir Putin on Syria: a durable ceasefire in Aleppo and humanitarian access so that the devastation of this city can end," an aide to Hollande said in Paris.

Syria's second city, held by rebels determined to oust President Bashar al-Assad, has come under heavy bombardment since the Russian-backed military announced an offensive in late September to regain control of the east.

Air strikes in the city have flattened numerous residential buildings and civilian facilities, in a bombing campaign the European Union warned could amount to war crimes.

The Berlin meeting takes place on the eve of a European Union summit in Brussels on relations with Russia, including sanctions over Ukraine, which come up for renewal at the end of the year.

The two-day Brussels talks are also expected to cover Russia's role in Syria, which sparked a furious row between Russia and France last week, prompting Putin to cancel a visit to Paris.

- Swapping recriminations -

The last four-way summit in the so-called Normandy Format took place in Paris in October 2015.

Hollande's office said in a statement that Wednesday's gathering would "discuss the next steps in the process towards ending the crisis in eastern Ukraine".

Russia backs a separatist, pro-Moscow insurgency in the region that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives.

But it denies accusations that it has sent troops and weapons across its border with Ukraine to fuel the conflict.

In the run-up to the meeting, Moscow and Kiev swapped recriminations.

Peskov said Tuesday that Putin believed there was "no alternative" to implementing the Minsk accords.

"We know that on this point, the situation leaves much to be desired," he said. "For the moment, Kiev is doing nothing."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also indicated he had little hope for progress in Berlin.

"Am I optimistic enough? Yes I'm very optimistic about the future of Ukraine but unfortunately not so optimistic about tomorrow's meeting," he said Tuesday on a visit to Oslo.

Ukrainian political analyst Taras Berezovets said it would require more than Western diplomacy to convince Russia to stay out of eastern Ukraine.

"I don't have any illusions about Merkel and Hollande being able to calm Putin's ambition at this stage," he wrote on Facebook.

"In general, the Russian president is satisfied with the current balance of forces in the east of Ukraine."

Germany currently holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has monitors in eastern Ukraine.

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