GENEVA/MOSCOW: The United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union together called Thursday for an immediate halt to violence in Ukraine, where Western powers believe Russia is fomenting a pro-Russian separatist movement.
Washington immediately warned Moscow that it would face further sanctions if it did not carry out the agreement, reached in four-party crisis talks in Geneva.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in Moscow, accused Ukraine’s leaders of committing a “grave crime” by using the army to try to quell unrest in the east of the country, and did not rule out sending in Russian troops.
Putin said he hoped he would not need to take such a step, and that diplomacy could succeed in resolving the standoff.
The comments came hours after separatists attacked a Ukrainian national guard base overnight and Kiev said three of them were killed in the worst bloodshed yet in the 10-day pro-Russian uprising.
Ukrainian, Russian and Western diplomats held emergency talks seeking to resolve a confrontation that has seen pro-Russian fighters seize official buildings across eastern Ukraine while Moscow masses tens of thousands of troops on the border.
“All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions,” a joint statement issued after the Geneva talks said.
“All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; 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,” it added.“It will be a test for Russia, if Russia wants really to show [it is] willing to have stability,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia.
It was unclear if Russia would meet Western demands for it to stop stirring unrest in the east and withdraw its troops from the border.
There was skepticism over whether the agreement could work.
“Diplomacy cannot succeed if there is no room for compromise,” said Ulrich Speck, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “The Kremlin is dedicated to get Ukraine under its control, one way or another. It feels that it has well advanced on that goal, and is not ready to back down. The West simply cannot agree to those conditions.”
U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his hope that the situation could be addressed through diplomatic means, but warned: “We have put in place additional consequences that we can impose on the Russians if we do not see actual improvement of the situation.”
The United States and European Union have so far imposed visa bans and asset freezes on a small number of Russian individuals, but Western states say they are now contemplating measures that could hurt Russia’s economy more broadly.
Moscow’s takeover of Crimea followed the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro- Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovich, after months of street protests prompted by his rejection of a trade deal with the EU.
Seeking to reassure its eastern allies, NATO announced it was sending warships to the Baltic. The U.S. approved more non-lethal military support for Ukraine, including medical and welfare supplies.
Speaking on Russian television, Putin accused the authorities in Kiev of plunging the country into an “abyss.”
“I hope that they are able to realize what a pit, what an abyss the current authorities are in and dragging the country into,” he said in his annual televised question-and-answer session with the Russian public.
He also acknowledged for the first time that Russian troops had played a direct role in Crimea, by assisting local militia.
Ukraine, which sees Moscow’s hand behind separatist uprisings in the east, said it would impose stricter border controls on Russians seeking to enter the country. Russia said it might retaliate.