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Ukraine talks yield an unexpected agreement

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Diplomats from the East and West had an unexpected meeting of the minds Thursday and drafted a plan for tamping down hostilities in eastern Ukraine by disarming rogue gunmen and restoring government sites seized by pro-Russia militants to their "legitimate owners."

The agreement, signed by the top diplomats of Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine, at least temporarily staved off sanctions against Moscow, although U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that no one had left the meeting in Geneva "with a sense that the job is done because of words on a paper."

Russia will have to demonstrate its commitment to de-escalating the Ukraine crisis within days or face stepped-up sanctions, Kerry warned.

At the White House, President Obama expressed skepticism about Russia's willingness to comply.

"My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days, but I don't think, given past performance, that we can count on that," he said at an impromptu news conference after the Geneva talks concluded. "We have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be, you know, efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine."

Russian-speaking gunmen have been occupying key government installations in a dozen eastern Ukraine towns and cities in recent weeks, in what many suspect is a campaign directed from Moscow to split the country and annex its eastern parts to Russia, as occurred in Crimea last month.

The plan penned by the four parties calls on the interim government in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, to engage in "a broad national dialogue" to mend rifts between the nation's western regions, which lean politically toward Europe, and the eastern parts, which are home to a large ethnic Russian minority.

If honored, the apparent compromise could buy time for Ukraine to try to work out a national governing structure without armed separatists disrupting the process by occupying government buildings and thwarting public functions.

Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, had already raised the prospect of negotiating a new power-sharing formula for Ukraine's diverse regions before meeting with his counterparts, a gathering that had been expected to make little progress.

Still, Ukraine's commitment to engage in "immediate" discussion of constitutional revisions was a concession to Russia's demand that Ukraine be transformed from a unitary state with a strong central government into a federation in which regions enact economic and foreign policies.

The eight-paragraph statement offers few details on what changes are expected to come out of the national dialogue, only that it be "inclusive, transparent and accountable."

It omits any mention of the 40,000 troops Russia has massed along Ukraine's eastern border. U.S. and European officials have criticized the Kremlin deployment as an attempt to intimidate Ukraine.

As the diplomats met in the Swiss city, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated what he called his nation's right to send troops into Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians.

"We know quite well that we must do our best to protect their rights and help them independently decide their fate, and we will struggle for that," Putin said during his annual call-in show at a Moscow studio.

In the four-hour live broadcast, he reminded the world that Russia's parliament had authorized him to use armed force in Ukraine, although he said he hoped such a move wouldn't be necessary.

Sporadic clashes have pitted pro-Russia gunmen against Ukrainian troops in exchanges of gunfire in recent days. On Thursday, Ukrainian national guard troops killed three people, wounded 13 and detained 63 suspects after armed militants attacked their unit in the port of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov reported.

The Geneva gathering was the first to include a representative of the Ukrainian government in efforts to ease the crisis, which began after the Kremlin's ally, President Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted by a rebellion in late February. The Kremlin has repeatedly denounced the interim Kiev leadership as un-elected and illegitimate.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who first disclosed the terms of the agreement, pointedly omitted mention of Ukraine as a signatory to the plan, according to the account carried by the Itar-Tass news agency.

But his grudging acknowledgment that Ukraine's acting foreign minister was present at the meeting could be seen as de facto recognition of the interim Ukrainian leadership and its authority to make decisions on behalf of the troubled country.

A European Union statement on the meeting gave a more detailed account of the steps to be taken to ease tensions: disarmament of illegal armed groups, rejection of expressions of extremism, the return of illegally seized buildings to the unspecified "legitimate owners," clearing of barricaded streets and amnesty for protesters who surrender their weapons and leave the occupied facilities.

About a dozen towns and cities near the Russian border have been under the control of Russian-speaking gunmen, some in clearly recognizable Russian uniforms and carrying high-power, army-issue rifles.

Russia had been pressing for constitutional reform in Ukraine to occur before elections to replace Yanukovich and his now-decimated Party of Regions. The interim leaders in Kiev have scheduled a presidential election for May 25, an event that could enhance the government's perceived legitimacy. Observers suspect that Russia is attempting to destabilize Ukraine in part to interfere with the electoral process.

The Geneva agreement allows Russia and the European Union to avoid, at least for now, an escalation of sanctions. U.S. officials had said on the eve of the gathering that failure to get Russian commitment to defuse the crisis would result in sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs who have made their fortunes in collusion with the Kremlin.

Washington's European allies have been lukewarm toward U.S. suggestions to sanction Russia's vital energy trade, as EU member states are the biggest customers for Russian oil and natural gas. The European Union may have agreed to the limited demands of Thursday's Geneva talks to avoid an embarrassing split over stricter energy boycotts.

On Wednesday, Russia's finance and economic development ministers disclosed that the Ukraine crisis and the tougher sanctions that Russia may face had sent investors fleeing Russia with $63 billion in hard currency during the first three months of this year. They also warned that the instability afflicting Russian markets threatened to cut GDP growth this year to "near zero."

carol.williams@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.

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