BERLIN - President Vladimir Putin faces a grilling over Russia’s role in Ukraine and Syria at talks in Berlin Wednesday, on his first visit to the German capital since the Ukrainian conflict erupted.

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 Moscow 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. “I don’t expect easy talks ,” admitted German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who will also attend the meeting that is due to start after 6:00 pm (1600 GMT). “A peaceful solution is not yet in sight... but we will not stop trying.”

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

Moscow’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 talk 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.

 

Meanwhile, a pause in Russian and Syrian strikes on Aleppo held into a second day Wednesday, ahead of a brief ceasefire aimed at allowing civilians and rebels to quit the devastated city.

The halt came ahead of talks in Berlin between the Russian, French, and German leaders on Syria’s five-year conflict.

Moscow is backing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in its war with a wide range of rebel groups, including with air strikes in the divided northern city of Aleppo.

Under growing international pressure over the devastation and civilian deaths caused by strikes, Moscow announced early Tuesday that Russian and Syrian warplanes would stop bombing rebel-held parts of the city to pave the way for a “humanitarian pause”.

That window, starting at 0500 GMT on Thursday and due to last eight hours, is expected to see all fighting stop to allow civilians and rebels to exit opposition-held districts via six corridors.

An estimated 250,000 people live in Aleppo’s eastern districts and have been under near-continuous government siege since July.

Moscow’s offer was initially met with scepticism, but the bombing halt held for its first 24 hours.

“There have been no air raids from yesterday morning until now,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said as the pause entered its second day.

Russian and Syrian bombardment had been providing air cover for a government offensive that started on September 22 aimed at seizing the city’s east, held by rebels since 2012.

Despite the bombing pause, troops pressed their ground assault in the Old City on Wednesday as they vied to shift the front line in the heart of Aleppo, according to the Observatory.

- ‘Still scared’ -

According to Moscow, once the pause begins six corridors out of the city would open for civilians with another two - via the Castello Road in the north and Souk al-Hal in the city centre - designated for rebels.

Rebel groups have indicated they will not abandon their posts and, with Aleppo encircled by pro-government forces, many civilians fear falling into the hands of the regime.

But Russia has said the pause is an opportunity for mainstream rebels to disassociate themselves from jihadists in Aleppo.

Russia has responded to criticism of its air campaign in Aleppo by repeatedly pointing to the presence of jihadist groups in the city allied with other rebel forces.

Some of the rebels are backed by the United States, and Moscow has accused Washington of not doing enough to convince them to end alliances with jihadists.

“Each time, the Americans said it was impossible to perform the separation without the establishment of a ceasefire,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

“The condition that has been asked for, especially by our American colleagues, is now filled.”

Ibrahim Abu al-Leith, a spokesman for the White Helmets rescue force in Aleppo, said there were no planes circling above on Wednesday but artillery and rocket fire continued.

“It’s better than before, but people won’t go out unless everything stops. They are still scared because they know that the regime and Russia are not trustworthy,” Abu al-Leith told AFP from the city.

Five years of diplomatic initiatives to put an end to Syria’s conflict have failed, but over the past week world powers have made new efforts to reach a lasting truce.

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Berlin later Wednesday to discuss the ceasefire plans.

Speaking of the “disastrous” situation in Aleppo, Merkel said she and Hollande would speak to Putin but that “we cannot expect miracles”.

The United States has expressed scepticism about Moscow’s most recent initiative.

“We’ve seen these kinds of commitments and promises before. And we’ve seen them broken. We’re watching this very carefully,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told CNN.

A US-led coalition is bombing jihadists in Syria including the Islamic State group and Russia accused member Belgium of killing six civilians in air strikes in the Aleppo region on Tuesday.

The Belgian defence ministry denied its air force was active in the area at the time.

Talks were also due Wednesday in Geneva between Russian, US, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish officials on the efforts to distance Syrian opposition fighters from jihadists, in particular the Fateh al-Sham Front, which changed its name from Al-Nusra Front after renouncing its ties to Al-Qaeda.