Ukraine, Russia aim to defuse crisis

U.S. skeptical of accord calling on activists to stand down

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GENEVA -- The United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union reached an agreement Thursday evening that called for armed pro-Russian bands in eastern Ukraine to surrender the government buildings they have seized and that outlined other steps to defuse a crisis that has rattled the international community.

The diplomatic accord, while limited in scope, represented the first time Russia and Ukraine had found common ground since protests toppled a pro-Moscow government in Kiev, leading the Kremlin to annex the Crimean Peninsula and threaten other parts of Ukraine with 40,000 troops on its border. The deal came hours after Ukrainian security forces killed three pro-Russian activists in a firefight.

But neither President Barack Obama in Washington nor President Vladimir Putin in Moscow signaled that the crisis over Ukraine was over. During a long, televised question-and-answer session before the agreement was announced, Mr. Putin asserted historic claims over Ukrainian territory and the right to send in Russian troops.

Speaking after the accord was announced, Mr. Obama sounded a skeptical note, saying it offered "a glimmer of hope," but "we're not going to count on it," and adding that the United States would take more punitive action if Russia did not abide by its terms.

Hoping to coordinate a future response with European leaders, Mr. Obama spoke by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Vice President Joe Biden called Slovakia's prime minister for the second time in recent days to press him to help reverse the flow of a natural gas pipeline to provide Ukraine with energy if it is cut off by Russia.

Tension on the ground continued to mount in the hours before the Geneva agreement was announced. Pro-Russian activists tried to storm a Ukrainian base in the eastern city of Mariupol, prompting a firefight that left three of the activists dead, 13 wounded and 63 captured, according to Ukraine's interim interior minister.

The Mariupol firefight Thursday was the deadliest in eastern Ukraine since the crisis began. Ukrainian authorities said attackers threw gasoline bombs and opened fire on perimeter guards at a base used by the newly formed National Guard, which has drawn volunteers who took part in last winter's protest movement against the old pro-Moscow government. About 300 people were in the crowd.

In Donetsk, where pro-Russian militants have taken over a government building, fliers appeared ordering Jews to register with authorities. And in the hours after the accord, brokered in part by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, militants occupying the government building in the name of the newly declared and wholly unrecognized People's Republic of Donetsk said they would not be bound by anything Russia had agreed to.

The Geneva agreement -- hammered out during six hours of talks between Mr. Kerry, Mr. Lavrov, interim Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton-- called upon all sides in Ukraine to refrain from violence or provocative behavior and rejected all forms of intolerance, including anti-Semitism.

In exchange, the interim Ukrainian government agreed to grant amnesty to protesters who leave the government buildings they have occupied and give up their arms, unless they are suspected of murder or other capital crimes. The Kiev government would also ensure that constitutional revisions involve "outreach to all of Ukraine's regions and political constituencies," a reference to Russian speakers in the country's east.

But the accord was as notable for what it did not address as for what it did. It did not require Russia to remove its troops from the border, nor did it commit Moscow to hold direct talks with Ukrainian officials, two of Mr. Obama's demands. Moreover, the pact made no mention of Russia's seizure and annexation of Crimea, an action the United States and Europe deemed unacceptable and yet unlikely to be reversed, at least in the foreseeable future, Western officials have acknowledged privately.


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