Putin heads to Berlin for summit on escalating tensions with West
BERLIN - Russian President Vladimir Putin heads to Berlin on Wednesday for a summit focussing on escalating tensions between Moscow and the West over the Kremlin's strategy in Ukraine and Syria.
The meeting -- the first in a year between the Russian, German, French and Ukrainian leaders -- will "evaluate the implementation" of the Minsk peace accords for Ukraine, Berlin and Paris said Tuesday.
It will also be Putin's first visit to the German capital since the Ukraine conflict broke out in 2014.
The talks take 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 meeting is also expected to discuss Russia's role in Syria, which sparked a furious row between Russia and France last week, prompting Putin to cancel a visit to Paris.
Wednesday's summit will "discuss the next steps in the process towards ending the crisis in eastern Ukraine," the French president's office said Tuesday.
All sides agreed to a peace deal brokered by Germany and France in February 2015, but while the Minsk accords reduced the intensity of fighting, they failed to stop it.
Even before the Berlin meeting convened, all sides tamped down hopes for a breakthrough.
Merkel said that despite continued diplomatic efforts since the last four-way summit in the so-called Normandy Format in Paris in October 2015, "we have not achieved what we wanted to achieve".
"Things are stalled in many areas such as the ceasefire, political issues and humanitarian issues," she told reporters in Berlin.
"I have to say that we cannot expect a miracle but it is worth every effort at this point."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko echoed Merkel's sober assessment on a visit to Oslo.
"Let's not have very high expectations on this meeting," he said.
"Am I optimistic enough? Yes I'm very optimistic about the future of Ukraine but unfortunately not so optimistic about tomorrow's meeting."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin believed there was "no alternative" to implementing the Ukraine accords.
"We know that on this point, the situation leaves much to be desired," he said. "For the moment, Kiev is doing nothing."
French President Francois Hollande last week called on all parties in the Ukraine conflict to draw up a roadmap to end the crisis.
The aim would be to help Ukraine regain control of its borders with Russia, he said after speaking by telephone with Poroshenko.
Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, backs a separatist, pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives.
Moscow has denied accusations that it has sent troops and weaponry across its border with Ukraine to fuel the conflict, which erupted in April 2014, destroying much of Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland.
Germany currently holds the rotating presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has monitors in eastern Ukraine.
Although focused on Ukraine, the Berlin meeting comes against the backdrop of the Syrian regime's Moscow-backed assault on Aleppo, which the EU and the United States has warned could amount to a war crime.
EU foreign ministers said Monday they would press ahead with extending sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, but stopped short of threatening measures against Russia.
However Merkel said that in light of the "disastrous situation" in Syria, "no option, including sanctions, can be taken off the table".
Moscow on Monday announced an eight-hour "humanitarian" ceasefire in Aleppo later this week, as friction with the West has intensified.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned earlier this month that mounting tensions between the United States and Russia have created a situation that is "more dangerous" than the Cold War.
Relations between the two have nosedived since a Syria ceasefire they agreed to in September fell apart in less than a week.
At least 250,000 people are living under siege in rebel-held east Aleppo, and facing almost-daily heavy bombing since the Russian-backed Syrian army launched an offensive to retake the city last month.