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April 18, 2014

Obama voices skepticism on Russia in Ukraine

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama conveyed skepticism Thursday about Russian promises to de-escalate a volatile situation in Ukraine, and said the United State and its allies are ready to impose fresh sanctions if Moscow doesn’t make good on its commitments.

“My hope is we do see follow-through,” Obama said at an impromptu news conference at the White House a few hours after Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a meeting in Geneva with diplomats from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union.

“The question now becomes, will in fact they use the influence that they’ve exerted in a disruptive way to restore some order so that Ukrainians can carry out an election, move forward with the decentralization reforms that they’ve proposed, stabilize their economy and start getting back on the path of growth and democracy and that their sovereignty will be respected?” he said.

Obama did not say what additional sanctions might be in the offing if commitments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva do not materialize. U.S. officials have prepared penalties on wealthy Russians in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, as well on the entities they run.

The president and Vice President Joe Biden discussed the developments in a round of calls Thursday to foreign leaders. Obama called British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose support for additional sanctions would be crucial given her country’s close economic ties with Russia. The White House said in statements that the leaders agreed that they were prepared to enact further penalties on Russia if it does not de-escalate the situation “in short order.”

Biden conferred with leaders in the Eastern European region near Ukraine — Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia and Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev — and discussed the need for Russia to take immediate action.

In his comments from the White House, Obama noted that Russia has thousands of troops massed along its border with eastern Ukraine, a deployment he called a measure of intimidation. He said the United States and others think Russia has played a hand in the “disruption and chaos” that have recently spread through southern and eastern Ukraine.

The agreement sketched out in Geneva would give amnesty to protesters who evacuate buildings they have occupied, except those found guilty of capital crimes. It says Kiev’s plans to reform its constitution and transfer more power from the central government to regional authorities must be inclusive, transparent and accountable — including through the creation of a broad national dialogue.

At the same time, the agreement gives Moscow a dayslong reprieve from threatened U.S. and European Union economic sanctions. The U.S. accuses Russia of stoking a potential eastern Ukraine separatist revolt against Kiev following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean peninsula.

Obama said Ukraine had promised to respect the rights of residents of the southern and eastern part of the country, many of whom speak Russian or have other ties to their next-door neighboring country.

As for Russia, Obama said, “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, and 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.”

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