GENEVA — The United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union reached an agreement here Thursday that calls for armed pro-Russian bands to give up the government buildings they have seized in eastern Ukraine and outlines other steps to de-escalate the crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the package of measures as an important first step to avert “a complete and total implosion” in eastern Ukraine and said that it could be followed by negotiation of more far-reaching steps to ease a crisis in which violence seemed to be growing by the day.
Kerry’s Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, said that the deal was “largely based on compromise” and that a settlement of the crisis was primarily the responsibility of Ukraine. Lavrov made the remarks at a news conference that he gave before Kerry had spoken.
But President Obama sounded a cautious if not skeptical note in Washington. “I don’t think we can be sure of anything at this point,” he said, but there is a chance “that diplomacy may de-escalate the situation.”
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He added: “We’re not going to know if there is follow through for several days.”
Judging by the early reaction on the street in eastern Ukraine, his skepticism was justified.
Vasili Domashev, who described himself as an aide to the commandant of a building under occupation in Donetsk, said that since no representative of the newly declared and wholly unrecognized People’s Republic of Donetsk had been invited to the Geneva talks, the republic would not be bound by the decisions made there.
Though Western governments maintain that Russia holds sway over the groups here, Domashev said that was not the case. “Lavrov and Kerry decided, but who are they to us? We are the Donetsk Republic. We have people who make their own decisions.”
“We will not leave,” he concluded. “We do not trust Kiev. We really don’t trust them.”
The agreement, described in a joint statement, does not specifically require Russia to remove the approximately 40,000 troops it has on Ukraine’s border, as President Obama has demanded.
Nor does it commit Russia to holding direct talks with the interim Ukrainian government, which has been another U.S. demand. The agreement also does not mention the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula last month.
The agreement on “initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security” in Ukraine followed more than six hours of talks here that involved Kerry; Lavrov; Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia; and Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign-policy chief.
It calls on all sides in Ukraine to refrain from violence or provocative behavior and rejects all forms of intolerance, including anti-Semitism, which Kerry said had emerged as a worry in eastern Ukraine.
“All illegal armed groups must be disarmed,” the statement declares. “All illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.”
In recent days, the United States and other Western nations have repeatedly charged that Russian agents had orchestrated the seizure of government buildings in eastern Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia denied the allegations in a question-and-answer session Thursday on Russian television. But he also said Russia reserved the right to intervene militarily and he used new language that asserted Russia’s historical claims to parts of eastern Ukraine.
Under the agreement negotiated in Geneva, the Ukrainian government would grant amnesty to protesters who leave the government buildings they have occupied and agree to give up their arms, unless they are suspected of murder or other capital crimes.
International monitors from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 57-nation group that includes Russia, are to play a “leading role” in helping Ukrainians carry out the de-escalation measures.
Ukraine, the agreement says, should also ensure that reform of its constitution involves “outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies.” And the statement endorses the importance of economic support to Ukraine.
Kerry said at a news conference that it was critical that the measures be “translated immediately into action” and that he hoped more far-reaching steps could follow.
“None of us leave here with the sense that the job is done,” he added. “We do not envision this as the full measure of de-escalation.”
The measures requiring armed groups to vacate government buildings in eastern Ukraine was singled out by Western officials as an especially significant measure, and Kerry made it clear that the Obama administration would hold Russia accountable to see that it was carried out.