Secretary of State John F. Kerry reached a tentative agreement Thursday with Russia’s foreign minister to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine by disarming militias, but tensions remained high as three pro-Russian separatists were killed in clashes and Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Kiev of plunging the country into an abyss.
In the first such talks since Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine last month, the diplomats in Geneva agreed that all sides would refrain from violence and that all “illegal armed groups will be disarmed.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the agreement “a compromise of sorts” after more than six hours of meetings with Mr. Kerry, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
A joint statement issued by the parties also calls for the return of “all illegally seized buildings to legitimate owners” in Ukraine. Pro-Russia separatists in recent weeks have seized Ukrainian government buildings in 10 cities in the eastern part of the country.
The document didn’t address the 40,000 Russian troops who the U.S. says are massed on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders.
President Obama expressed skepticism that the agreement would hold.
“I don’t think we can be sure of anything at this point,” Mr. Obama said during an afternoon news conference at the White House. “We’re not going to know whether there’s follow-through [by Russia] on these statements for several days. I don’t think, given past performance, we can count on that.”
Mr. Obama spoke by phone with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and both leaders agreed that the U.S. and Europe “are prepared to take further measures if this de-escalation does not occur in short order.” The Obama administration has imposed economic and travel sanctions against top Russian officials and warned of broader measures if Russia does not change course.
Mr. Putin scoffed at the renewed threat from the West.
“They badly want to bite us, but their opportunities are limited,” Mr. Putin said. “If they try to punish us by putting us into a corner on our knees like naughty children, they will cut the branch they are sitting on.”
The agreement was presented as the first step in what Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov said will be further negotiations with the EU and the government in Kiev to de-escalate the crisis. But even allies of the Obama administration worry that Moscow is simply playing for time with the talks, and other developments Thursday showed that the crisis was far from resolution.
Sen. Christopher Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who visited Ukraine last week, said he has “low expectations” for the talks.
“Russia’s just lying to us about what is really going on,” Mr. Murphy said on CNN. “Ultimately, we have to understand that they’re probably just trying to buy time until they can find a way to regain control of the government in Kiev. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but that clearly is what they’re trying to do here.”
Three pro-Russia activists were killed and 13 injured Thursday during an attempted overnight raid on a Ukrainian National Guard base in the Black Sea port of Mariupol, Ukrainian authorities said.
The Interior Ministry said a mob of around 300 people armed with stun grenades and firebombs were involved in the bloodiest episode to date in the confrontation pitting Ukraine’s new government in Kiev against an eastern insurgency tacitly supported by Moscow.
In Moscow, Mr. Putin said he hopes he doesn’t have to send Russian troops into Ukraine but hasn’t ruled it out. He accused Kiev of committing “a serious crime” by using the military to quell unrest.
During a live call-in TV show, Mr. Putin said Ukraine’s military action showed that the government was making no attempt to respond to the demands of those in the heavily ethnic-Russian region.
“Instead of realizing that something has gone wrong in Ukraine and making attempts to start dialogue, they have intensified their threats to use force and have even decided to send tanks and aircraft against the civilian population,” Mr. Putin said. “It is another very serious crime on the part of the current Kiev authorities.”
The Security Service of Ukraine said it was detaining 10 “Russian spies” arrested over the past six weeks on suspected missions to stir unrest, further implying Russia’s role in the destabilization of the country.
The Geneva agreement called on all sides to refrain from violence, intimidation and provocation, as well as to reject extremism in all shapes.
Mr. Kerry told reporters that notices were sent to Jews in a Ukrainian city believed to be in the east, asking them to identify themselves as Jews — a move he condemned.
“In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable, it’s grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable,” he said.
Separately, the European Union announced that it had agreed to hold talks with Russia on gas supplies to Europe through Ukraine, warning Moscow that its reliability as an energy source was at stake.
Mr. Putin has set a one-month deadline for Ukraine to settle its debt for gas imports from Russia.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.