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Merkel expects 'no wonders' from four-way meeting on Ukraine

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “no wonders” should be expected at talks on a stalled peace plan for eastern Ukraine which she will host on Wednesday with the leaders of Russia, France and Ukraine.

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Other top officials, including Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, also dampened expectations of any breakthrough at the talks in Berlin on ending a conflict in which more than 9,600 people have been killed since 2014.

“One musn’t expect any wonders from tomorrow’s meeting but it is worth every endeavour on this issue to take efforts forward,” Merkel told a news conference on Tuesday.

Merkel said she and French President Francois Hollande would also discuss what she called the worsening humanitarian disaster in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Given this situation, I believe no option - including that of sanctions - can be taken off the table,” Merkel said, adding that the first priority was to alleviate human suffering in Syria.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said it was important to maintain pressure on Russia over Syria, a theme echoed by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

“Yes, we want better relations, but not at the price that (the Russians) don’t stick to the rules,” Schaeuble said in a speech in which he called for European Union states to pool their defence budgets to better counter the Russian military.

“We don’t want to fall back into the old insanity of reacting to every provocation, but that doesn’t mean we will accept the shifting of borders and power with violence.”

Ayrault said the meeting would aim to establish a timetable for elections in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and discuss further military disengagement along the line of conflict.

Poroshenko, speaking in Oslo, cautioned against setting “very high expectations” for the meeting. The Kremlin has criticized Ukraine for not respecting its obligations under the Minsk ceasefire deal.

A ceasefire agreed in the Belarussian capital Minsk in February 2015 stemmed heavy fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed rebels, but violence routinely flares along a demarcation line.

“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 said.

The talks will take place just over a year after the four leaders last met in the so-called “Normandy Format,” and against the backdrop of heightened tensions between Russia, Europe and the United States about Moscow’s military role in Syria.

Ayrault, speaking in Paris, said there was no alternative to continuing to work on the Minsk agreement.

“I told the Ukrainians there was no plan B to the Minsk accords. Some think there is a plan B, which is confronting Russia, which we don’t want.”

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters it made sense to “compare notes” about implementation of the Minsk accord, but it was not possible to talk about any concrete agreements.

Reporting by Michelle Martin, Andrea Shalal, Andreas Rinke, Markus Wacket and Paul Carrel in Berlin, Dmitry Solvyov in Moscow, John Irish in Paris, Stine Jacobsen in Oslo, Natalia Zinets and Alexei Kalmykov in Kiev; Editing by Paul Carrel and Richard Balmforth