Donetsk, Ukraine (CNN) — Diplomats meeting for emergency talks on the crisis in Ukraine issued a joint statement Thursday aimed at de-escalating the tensions and ensuring the security of all Ukrainians.
The statement — which appears to be the biggest step toward calming the situation in days — followed talks lasting several hours between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, his acting Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsia, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The pact calls for all illegal armed groups to be disarmed, all illegally seized buildings to be returned to their legitimate owners and all occupied public spaces to be vacated. It promises amnesty for protesters who leave buildings and give up their weapons, apart from those convicted of capital crimes.
It also urges a halt to violence in Ukraine and condemns all extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism, in the country.
Kerry, speaking alongside Ashton, said the sides had worked hard to narrow the differences between them.
But he stressed that the agreement was just words and that the proof of it would be in its swift implementation on the ground.
“What is important is that these words are translated into actions and none of us leave here with the sense that the job is done, because the words are on the paper,” he said. “The job will not be done until these principles are implemented and are followed up on.”
Kerry warned that Russia could face “further costs” if the situation does not de-escalate in line with the concrete steps set out in the statement. Ukraine’s leaders must also play their part in calming the situation, he said.
Asked about what NATO has said is a large Russian troop build-up near the border with Ukraine, Kerry said “our hope is” that Russia will withdraw more troops from the area as steps to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis are implemented.
Russia indicates that it has withdrawn one battalion from the area in response to the West’s calls for deescalation, Kerry said.
All sides have agreed to ask for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has a mission in Ukraine, to help implement the measures.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed negotiations, while stressing that the situation in Ukraine remains “extremely volatile.”
Ban “expects all sides, moving forward, to show their serious intention to continue to engage, in a good-faith effort, and to implement the steps laid out in the Geneva Statement, which will contribute to a lasting solution to this crisis,” a U.N. statement read.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Thursday that he was happy but cautious after the Geneva talks.
Yatsenyuk said he was willing to grant more autonomy to eastern Ukraine in order to defuse tensions.
He took aim at Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, saying that Putin wants to restore the Russian empire and that a new Soviet Union would be a disaster for Europe.
Obama: U.S. military options not on the table
“I don’t think we can be sure of anything (in the Ukrainian crisis). I think there is the possibility, the prospect, that diplomacy may de-escalate the situation,” U.S. President Barack Obama said Thursday at the daily White House news conference when asked about the meeting in Geneva between top officials from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union.
He said referred to “a promising public statement” to disarm all groups that have been occupying buildings in eastern Ukraine, pointing out that the Russians have signed on to that statement. “We’re not going to know whether there is follow-through on these statements for several days,” Obama said.
The President stressed that he has emphasized to Putin that the United States will continue to uphold the basic principles of sovereignty of all countries.
“It is our belief … that Russia’s hand is in the disruptions and chaos that we’ve been seeing in southern and eastern Ukraine,” Obama said. “But there is an opportunity for Russia to take a different approach. We are encouraging them to do so. In the meantime, we’re going to prepare additional responses should Russia fail to take a different course.”
The President emphasized that he’s been very clear that U.S. military options are not on the table in dealing with the situation in Ukraine.
Lavrov: ‘Disgusting expressions’
Kerry said Ukraine’s interim leaders had made an impressive commitment toward listening to the demands of people in different regions of Ukraine, including the restive east, for increased autonomy and had promised constitutional reforms.
He said the agreement offered the best prospect for a positive way forward for Ukraine.
Lavrov, giving a separate news conference in Geneva, echoed the commitments of the joint statement, as well as stressing the need for Russian speakers in Ukraine to be protected from discrimination.
Speaking about the agreement to condemn extremism in Ukraine, Lavrov alleged that members of Ukraine’s Parliament had made “absolutely disgusting expressions” against those who speak Russian.
He urged a national dialogue in Ukraine, saying the process of constitutional reform must be transparent, inclusive and accountable — and that it was down to Ukrainians themselves to decide their future.
Russia has said it reserves the right to intervene in eastern Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians.
The four parties stressed the importance of Ukraine’s financial and economic stability, the statement added, “and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented.”
Military base attacked
The emergency talks in Geneva were called in the hope of resolving a deepening crisis that has seen armed pro-Russian protesters seize swaths of Ukraine.
The unrest in the east, which shares a border with Russia, has been spiraling so fast it has left diplomacy in the dust, amid the worst crisis in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War.
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Masked pro-Russian protesters stand guard in front of the city hall in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Thursday, April 17. Ukraine has seen a sharp rise in tensions since a new pro-European government took charge of the country in February. Moscow branded the new government illegitimate and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region last month, citing threats to Crimea’s Russian-speaking majority. And in eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists have seized government and police buildings in as many as 10 towns and cities.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reaches out to shake hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the start of a bilateral meeting to discuss the ongoing situation in Ukraine. The meeting took place April 17 in Geneva, Switzerland.
A masked gunman stands guard near tanks in Slaviansk, Ukraine, on Wednesday, April 16.
A Ukrainian helicopter flies over a column of Ukrainian Army combat vehicles on the way to Kramatorsk, a city in eastern Ukraine, on April 16.
A masked pro-Russian gunman guards combat vehicles parked in downtown Slaviansk on April 16.
A man talks with Ukrainian soldiers as they are blocked by people on their way to Kramatorsk.
Ukrainian soldiers sit atop combat vehicles on their way to Kramatorsk.
Ukrainian Gen. Vasily Krutov is surrounded by protesters after addressing the crowd outside an airfield in Kramatorsk on Tuesday, April 15.
Pro-Russian activists guard a barricade April 15 outside the regional police building that they seized in Slaviansk.
Ukrainian troops receive munitions at a field on the outskirts of Izium, Ukraine, on April 15.
Armed pro-Russian activists stand guard on top of a Ukrainian regional administration building in Slaviansk on Monday, April 14.
A pro-Russian activist carries a shield during the mass storming of a police station in Horlivka, Ukraine, on April 14.
Russian supporters attend a rally in front of the security service building occupied by pro-Russian activists in Luhansk, Ukraine, on April 14.
A man places a Russian flag over a police station after storming the building in Horlivka on April 14.
Men besiege the police station in Horlivka.
The Horlivka police station burns on April 14.
A Ukrainian police officer receives medical care after being attacked at the police station in Horlivka on April 14.
Pro-Russian supporters beat a pro-Ukrainian activist during a rally in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Sunday, April 13.
Pro-Russian activists escort a man outside the secret service building in Luhansk on April 13.
Pro-Russian protesters guard a barricade in Slaviansk on April 13 outside a regional police building seized by armed separatists the day before.
Armed pro-Russian activists carrying riot shields occupy a police station in Slaviansk on April 12.
A group of pro-Russian activists warm themselves by a fire Friday, April 11, in front of a Ukrainian Security Service office in Luhansk.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk speaks April 11 during his meeting with regional leaders in Donetsk, Ukraine. Yatsenyuk flew into Donetsk, where pro-Russian separatists occupied the regional administration building and called for a referendum.
Pro-Russian young men look over the fence of a military recruitment office in Donetsk on Thursday, April 10.
Armed pro-Russian protesters occupy the Security Service building in Luhansk on April 10.
Members of the self-proclaimed government the “Donetsk Republic” vote April 10 during a meeting at the seized regional administration building in Donetsk.
Ukrainian lawmakers from different parties scuffle during a Parliament session in Kiev, Ukraine, on Tuesday, April 8.
Workers clean up on April 8 after pro-Russian separatists and police clashed overnight in Kharkiv.
Pro-Russian protesters burn tires near a regional administration building in Kharkiv after police cleared the building on Monday, April 7.
A masked man stands on top of a barricade at the regional administration building in Donetsk on April 7.
Protesters wave a Russian flag as they storm the regional administration building in Donetsk on Sunday, April 6. Protesters seized state buildings in several east Ukrainian cities, prompting accusations from Kiev that Moscow is trying to “dismember” the country.
Pro-Russian protesters clash with police as they try to occupy a regional administration building in Donetsk on April 6.
Pro-Russian activists hold a rally in front of a Ukrainian Security Service office in Luhansk on April 6.
A young demonstrator with his mouth covered by a Russian flag attends a pro-Russia rally outside the regional government administration building in Donetsk on Saturday, April 5.
A Ukrainian soldier guards a road not far from Prokhody, a village near the Russian border, on April 5. Ukrainian and Western officials have voiced alarm about Russia’s reported military buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border.
Ukrainian cadets at the Higher Naval School embrace a friend who has decided to stay in the school during a departure ceremony in Sevastopol, Crimea, on Friday, April 4. Some 120 cadets who refused to take Russian citizenship left the school to return to Ukraine.
Soviet military veterans take part in a flower-laying ceremony at the Soviet-era World War II memorial in Sevastopol on Thursday, April 3.
Ukrainian soldiers conduct a training session on the Desna military shooting range northeast of Kiev on Wednesday, April 2.
Russian soldiers prepare for diving training in front of a Tarantul-III class missile boat Tuesday, April 1, in Sevastopol.
People pass by barricades near the Dnipro Hotel in Kiev on April 1.
People walk past a train loaded with Russian tanks Monday, March 31, in the Gvardeyskoe railway station near Simferopol, Crimea.
A Russian solder sits in a tank at the Ostryakovo railway station, not far from Simferopol on March 31.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks about the economic development of Crimea during a meeting March 31 in Simferopol.
Members of the Ukrainian National Guard take part in military exercises on a shooting range near Kiev on March 31.
A woman cries Sunday, March 30, during a gathering to honor those who were killed during protests in Kiev’s Independence Square.
A woman and child walk past a line of police officers during a rally in Kharkiv on March 30.
Ukrainian soldiers take part in a training exercise at a military base in Donetsk on Saturday, March 29.
Demonstrators protest Friday, March 28, in Kiev, displaying police vehicles they seized during earlier clashes with authorities.
Members of the Right Sector group block the Ukrainian parliament building in Kiev on Thursday, March 27. Activists called for Interior Minister Arsen Avakov to step down after the recent killing of radical nationalist leader Oleksandr Muzychko, who died during a police operation to detain him. Muzychko and the Right Sector are credited with playing a lead role in the protests that toppled Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych.
Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine’s bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the Black Sea peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families.
Ukrainian marines wave as they leave a base in Feodosia, Crimea, on Tuesday, March 25.
Russian sailors stand on the deck of the corvette ship Suzdalets in the bay of Sevastopol on March 25.
Pro-Russian militia members remove a resident as Russian troops assault the Belbek air base, outside Sevastopol, on Saturday, March 22. After its annexation of Crimea, Russian forces have consolidated their control of the region.
Soldiers in unmarked uniforms sit atop an armored personnel carrier at the gate of the Belbek air base on March 22.
A Russian sailor holds the Russian Navy’s St. Andrew’s flag while standing on the bow of the surrendered Ukrainian submarine Zaporozhye on March 22 in Sevastopol.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs the final decree completing the annexation of Crimea on Friday, March 21, as Upper House Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, left, and State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin watch.
A Ukrainian serviceman leaves a Ukrainian military unit that Russian soldiers took control of in Perevalne on March 21.
Ukrainian border guards run during training at a military camp in Alekseyevka, Ukraine, on March 21.
Russian soldiers patrol the area surrounding a Ukrainian military unit in Perevalne on Thursday, March 20.
Pro-Russian protesters remove the gate to the Ukrainian navy headquarters as Russian troops stand guard in Sevastopol on Wednesday, March 19.
Pro-Russian forces walk inside the Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol on March 19.
A member of pro-Russian forces takes down a Ukrainian flag at the Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol on March 19.
Alexander Vitko, chief of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, leaves the Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol after pro-Russian forces took it over on March 19.
A Russian flag waves as workers install a new sign on a parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, on March 19.
Russian military personnel surround a Ukrainian military base in Perevalne on March 19.
Nameplates on the front of the Crimean parliament building get removed Tuesday, March 18, in Simferopol.
From left, Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov; Vladimir Konstantinov, speaker of the Crimean parliament; Russian President Vladimir Putin; and Alexei Chaly, the new de facto mayor of Sevastopol, join hands in Moscow on March 18 after signing a treaty to make Crimea part of Russia.
Demonstrators hold a Crimean flag at Lenin Square in Simferopol on March 18.
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint near Strilkove, Ukraine, close to Crimea on Monday, March 17.
Former boxer and Ukrainian politician Vitali Klitschko addresses reporters in Kiev on March 17.
Ukrainian troops stand guard in front of the Ukrainian Parliament building in Kiev on March 17.
A Ukrainian man applies for the National Guard at a mobile recruitment center in Kiev on March 17.
Civilians walk past riot police in Simferopol on March 17.
A Ukrainian soldier stands on top of an armored vehicle at a military camp near the village of Michurino, Ukraine, on March 17.
Policemen stand guard outside the regional state administration building in Donetsk during a rally by pro-Russia activists March 17.
Armed soldiers stand guard outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalne on March 17.
A man holds a Crimean flag as he stands in front of the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol on March 17.
Crimeans holding Russian flags celebrate in front of the parliament building in Simferopol on Sunday, March 16.
A Ukrainian police officer tries to shield himself from a road block thrown by pro-Russia supporters in Kharkiv on March 16.
Pro-Russia demonstrators storm the prosecutor general’s office during a rally in Donetsk on March 16.
A woman leaves a voting booth in Sevastopol on March 16. See the crisis in Ukraine before Crimea voted
Photos: Crisis in Ukraine
Kiev’s embattled new leaders have been struggling to reassert their authority in eastern towns largely controlled by armed pro-Russian separatists. They have tried dialogue and a show of force, both to little effect.
In the southeastern city of Mariupol, a gang of 300 attacked a Ukrainian military base Thursday, leading to gunfire between the two sides. In Donetsk, the self-declared chairman of the people’s council said he wants a referendum by May 11 to ask residents whether they wanted sovereignty.
And in Slaviansk, pro-Russian militants are firmly in control.
The Geneva gathering, held amid talk in the United States of fresh sanctions, was the first meeting since the crisis worsened.
Speaking earlier in the day in a televised question-and-answer session, Putin said the talks were important “to figure out how to get out of this situation.”
However, he also reiterated his thoughts about Kiev’s new interim government — in place since pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February after months of protests — calling it “illegitimate” and without a national mandate.
Presidential elections in May are taking place under “unacceptable conditions,” he added
“If the elections are to be legitimate, the constitution of Ukraine needs to be revised,” he said.
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Attack on military base
Earlier Thursday, about 300 pro-Russian militants repeatedly attacked a military base in Mariupol, Kiev said.
Soldiers opened fire, killing three attackers, wounding 13 and detaining 63 others. But some soldiers surrendered.
“The 25th Airborne Brigade whose soldiers showed cowardice and laid down weapons will be disbanded,” acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told Parliament. “Guilty soldiers will stand before the court.”
Vitaliy Naida, a senior counterintelligence officer with Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, said investigators are still trying to determine the nationalities of the 63 people detained in Mariupol.
He said that 16 of them were not carrying ID at the time of arrest and that he was not able to confirm whether any are Russian citizens at this stage.
Since March, officers have taken around 40 Russian citizens and their recruited Ukrainian agents into custody, he said. Five of these people have Russian military backgrounds.
Seeking another referendum
In an ominous echo of what happened in Crimea just weeks ago, the Donetsk People’s Republic wants to follow that region’s lead and hold a referendum early next month, said Denis Pushilin, the self-declared chairman of the people’s council. The referendum will essentially ask residents which country they want to be a part of: Russia or Ukraine.
Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula last month after its predominantly Russian-speaking residents voted yes in a referendum.
The moved was deemed illegal by Kiev and the West, but Putin has repeatedly defended it.
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Where unrest has occurred in eastern Ukraine
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“The threats to Russian-speaking people were absolutely clear, and that is why people of Crimea voted for their future and asked Russia for help,” he said. “Russia never planned any annexation, never, quite the contrary.”
Putin also said Russian forces had been active in Crimea in order to support local defense forces, the first time he has acknowledged the deployment of Russian troops on the Black Sea peninsula.
The interim authorities in Kiev said Thursday that Ukraine has tightened its border controls while efforts to contain the uprising in the east continue.
Sergey Astahov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Border Service, said it is restricting the entry of Russian males aged 16 to 60, letting them enter only under exceptional circumstances. He said the tighter checks are due to the ongoing anti-terror operation announced this week by the government.
Russian airline Aeroflot also said on its website that Ukraine was imposing tighter border controls on Russian men and Ukrainian citizens registered in Crimea and the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
Russia is demanding an immediate official clarification from Ukraine regarding the steps taken by the Ukrainian border services, the Russian Foreign Minister said in a statement Thursday.
Threats of sanctions
Kiev and the West dispute Putin’s claims that Russia is not involved in the current unrest in Ukraine’s east. They accuse Moscow of backing the pro-Russian protesters and point to the 40,000 Russian troops that NATO says are assembled near the Ukrainian frontier.
Moscow insists that the troops are merely conducting exercises.
There are no Russian divisions in eastern Ukraine, Putin reiterated Thursday, adding that all evidence pointed to the groups causing the unrest being local residents.
He said the presence of tanks and planes constituted “a very serious crime” that authorities in Kiev were committing.
Moscow has warned in the past week that Ukraine was “on the brink of a civil war.”
On Wednesday, Obama said Russia’s actions risk more sanctions for the country.
“What I’ve said consistently is that each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to destabilize Ukraine and violate their sovereignty, that there are going to be consequences. And what you’ve already seen is the Russian economy weaker, capital fleeing out of Russia,” Obama told CBS.
Obama has signed off on sending more nonlethal aid to the Ukrainian military, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced Thursday.
The Pentagon is still not supporting lethal aid for Ukraine “because it could exacerbate the situation, which is what we do not want to do,” a senior Pentagon official said.
“If we provide arms and ammunition, then we are in the fight. We don’t want that.”
Ukrainian lawmakers voted Thursday to reinstate military service in the country. Until it was dropped last year, it was compulsory for all males in Ukraine.
Lawmakers have now voted to bring it back because of what has been termed “Russian aggression.” The legislation must still be signed off by the acting President.
Since Yanukovych’s ouster, Kiev’s interim government has faced a wave of protests in the predominantly Russian-speaking east.
Pro-Moscow protesters took over government buildings in several cities.
And when Ukraine’s armored vehicles rolled Wednesday, its attempt to take back eastern towns from pro-Russian militants seemed to stall.
In Donetsk, six armored vehicles sent into the nearby city of Kramatorsk in the morning later showed up carrying Russian flags in Slaviansk.
Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour those Ukrainian soldiers “preferred to switch sides and join the people.”
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the vehicles had been seized by militants.
Separately, in a reply to a letter from Putin in which he warned of gas supply disruption, the European Union said it was willing to hold talks with Russia and Ukraine on gas security.
“We believe that this approach allows for the most useful process with the Russian Federation and other third parties,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in his reply, released by the commission.
Russia supplies 30% of Europe’s gas needs. It has threatened to cut off supplies to Ukraine because of debts.
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Nick Paton Walsh reported from Donetsk, Ukraine. Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Laura Smith-Spark reported and wrote from London. CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen, Arwa Damon, Kellie Morgan, Claudia Rebaza, Barbara Starr, Radina Gigova and Alex Felton and journalist Azad Safarov also contributed to this report.
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