German chancellor Angela Merkel is set to host Ukrainian-Russian peace summit in Berlin on Wednesday. She will be joined by French President François Hollande, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Russian president Vladimir Putin in an attempt to revive stalled peace talks between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists in the east.
The meeting comes at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the West over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. But while the stakes for resolving the issues between Russia and the international community are high, Dr. Merkel and others are downplaying the efficacy of the summit before it even begins.
"One mustn't expect any wonders from tomorrow's meeting, but it is worth every endeavor on this issue to take efforts forward," Merkel told a news conference on Tuesday.
On paper, the summit plans to patch up holes in the 2015 Minsk accords between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian forces in the country. Though the violence has lessened considerably, the deal was unable to put an end to the fighting in the region.
"Things are stalled in many areas such as the ceasefire, political issues and humanitarian issues," Merkel told reporters in Berlin.
According to Deutsche Welle, Germany, France, and Ukraine have expressed concerns that Russia is not committed to bringing peace to Ukraine. Russia has politically backed Ukrainian separatists in the region since before the crisis began in 2014, and continues to deny accusations that it covertly gives military assistance to the rebels as well.
John Herbst, former US ambassador to Ukraine, tells The Christian Science Monitor that the Minsk signers initially said that another meeting would occur only if Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Putin "both have something to contribute."
"In other words, they [said that Ukraine and Russia] should not have a meeting unless there is some expectation of progress," Mr. Herbst says.
Berlin hopes that that they will ultimately be able to help end the Ukraine conflict and begin to thaw relations between Russia and the West. But Herbst doubts any real progress will come out of the summit.
"I'm actually skeptical that this will produce anything substantial, because the position of the two sides are largely inflexible," he says. "The point is, there's an aggressor here and there's a victim here [with] staked-out positions which they're not likely to move from at the present time. That means that Putin's continuing his aggression in Ukraine, and Poroshenko sees no reason to make additional concessions; he's already made a bunch in the Minsk process."
Herbst says that by coming to Berlin, Putin is merely hoping to re-establish his legitimacy in Western Europe in spite of Russia's recent aggressive operations in Ukraine and Syria.
Poroshenko himself echoed this pessimism about the summit. "Am I very optimistic? Yes. I am very optimistic about the future of Ukraine but unfortunately not so much about tomorrow's meeting, but I would be very happy to be surprised," Poroshenko told reporters.
In order to end the conflict, Herbst says, Ukraine would have to offer a "face-saver" for Russia.
Ukraine would have to allow people in power in the east who are at least somewhat friendly to Moscow, he says. "I think Ukraine might be agreeable to something like that, but what they would demand in response is an end to the war and Ukrainian control of their own border."
With tensions between Russia and the West approaching Cold War levels, even minor progress would be welcome for the international community. Former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev recently spoke about concerns over an increasing "trust deficit" between the US and Russia at a recent international conference, as the Monitor previously reported.
At the center of the "trust deficit" is Syria, a topic which will also be discussed at the Berlin summit. Russia supports Bashar al-Assad's government in the civil war, while the US backs other forces in the region. The complex nature of the fight against ISIS in the region has forced both countries to work together in military operations, but this has done little to foster trust between the two countries, especially in light of Russia's continuous bombing of Aleppo, which the US has denounced as a war crime.
But an hour before Merkel's announcement about the summit Tuesday, Russia announced a temporary eight-hour suspension in bombing Aleppo to allow humanitarian access to the city. Russian officials say there was no direct connection between the suspension and the Berlin summit.
"Russia's strategic stance hasn't shifted – it's of vital importance to clinch a major victory," Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, told Bloomberg. "This will prove decisive to the Syrian resolution, with the capture of Aleppo bolstering Assad’s and Russia’s bargaining power."
The Berlin summit comes a day before an EU summit in Brussels will discuss Russian relations. The question of further EU sanctions over Ukraine, which will come up for renewal at the end of the year, will be an important point of discussion.
This article contains material from Reuters.