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Diplomatic deal struck on Ukraine

 

Diplomats from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union have agreed to a framework plan designed to end violence in Ukraine.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the framework hashed out by foreign ministers meeting in Geneva would disarm separatist militants in eastern Ukraine and have them vacate the government buildings, streets and squares they have occupied.

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In return, the Ukrainian government has offered amnesty to all pro-Russian militants who lay down their arms, with the exception of those who committed capital crimes.

The Ukrainian government has also "committed to going as far as they can to reach out to opponents" as part of a "comprehensive, inclusive process" ahead of next month's elections.

That will include consideration of constitutional amendments that could give Ukraine's Eastern regions greater autonomy.

President Obama expressed optimism that the framework was a positive step, but he acknowledged it was unclear whether separatists on the ground would follow through. 

"We're not going to know whether in fact they'll follow through on these statements for several days," he said at a White House press conference.

Kerry agreed the agreement is a "good day's work," he said leaders understood that, so far, it's only "words on paper."

Obama and Kerry have repeatedly accused Russia of stirring up unrest in Ukraine, and they said they would hold Russia accountable if things did not improve. The president specifically suggested tougher sanctions could be imposed.

"We have put in place additional consequences we can impose on the Russians if we do not see actual improvement on the ground," Obama said. "We have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts at interference."

Some outside observers raised questions about whether the agreement would really commit Russia to much of anything. 

Ukraine expert Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute noted that the deal did not require Russia to move troops it has amassed on Ukraine's border.
 
He also said that because pro-Russian militants were not party to the deal, Russia could continue to secretly use them to de-stabilize Ukraine while claiming their hands were clean. 
 
“What this means is that the West has accepted to be bluffed,”he said. “What will Putin say? He will say what he already said: ‘Sorry but the people fighting in the streets are behind the violence and they were not at the table so how can this apply to them?’”
 
Steve Pifer of the Brookings Institution, however, said the deal is better than expected.
 
"The big question is whether it will be implemented, and much will depend on whether Moscow does it part to defuse the crisis," he said. "Given all that Russia has done the past several weeks to crank up pressure and destabilize Ukraine, people are understandably dubious about Moscow's commitment to fulfill the statement."
 
The sides did not offer any paper on the framework deal other than a joint statement.  
 
The talks on Thursday did not address Crimea, which left Ukraine for Russia after a referendum the Obama administration said was illegal. 
 
The U.S. and its allies have worried that Russia was looking to follow the playbook in Crimea by stirring up unrest and then taking more territory from Ukraine.
 
Tensions have been rapidly escalating in eastern Ukraine.
 
Overnight, pro-Russian separatists attacked a Ukrainian military base in the Eastern city of Mariupol with guns and small bombs. Ukraine's interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said three separatists were killed and 13 others were wounded, according to Reuters.
 
Separatist groups also reportedly distributed flyers to Jews living in Eastern Ukraine telling them they would have to register their possessions. Kerry said the reports were "not just intolerable" but also "grotesque."

"There is no place for that, and unanimously every party joined today in its condemnation of that behavior," Kerry said.

Kiev also announced new restrictions on Russian citizens who wanted to cross the border into the country.

Russian airline Aeroflot told The Associated Press that Ukraine had informed the carrier that Russian men ages 16 to 60 were banned from entering the country unless they were traveling with family or to a funeral within the country.

"This applies to Russian citizens because there is information about possible provocations at the border, up to and including terrorist attacks," said Oleh Slobodian, a spokesman for the government in Kiev, according to Reuters. "Attention will be primarily paid to men of an active age, traveling alone or in a group."

Earlier Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the Ukrainian government's crackdown against protesters represented a "grave crime."

"I hope that they are able to realize what a pit, what an abyss the current authorities are in and dragging the country into," said Putin during an appearance on a call-in show.

The Russian leader also pointedly noted that he had been granted "the right to use military force in Ukraine."

"I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that we are able to solve all today's pressing issues via political and diplomatic means," Putin said.

Earlier Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the U.S. planned to offer additional non-lethal aid for the Ukrainian military, including helmets, sleeping mats and water purification systems.

"Earlier this morning I called Ukraine's acting defense minister to tell him that President Obama has approved additional non-lethal military assistance for health and welfare items and other supplies," Hagel said at a news conference.  

This story was updated at 4:30 p.m.

Erik Wasson contributed to this story.