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Obama shows skepticism on Russia in Ukraine

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

President Barack Obama pauses as he talks to reporters about the situation in Ukraine at the White House in Washington, Thursday, April 17, 2014.

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 Putin's inner circle, as well on the entities they run.

The president discussed the developments with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose support for additional sanctions would be crucial given her country's close economic ties with Russia. In a statement about their discussion, the White House said the two leaders agreed that they were prepared to enact further penalties on Russia if it does not de-escalate the situation "in short order."

Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden conferred by phone with Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia, which shares its eastern border with Ukraine. Obama and Fico, who have spoken periodically during the crisis, discussed further sanctions that would be enacted if Russia escalates the situation, as well as Europe's efforts to diversify its energy sources and reduce dependency on Russian natural gas, Biden's office said.

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 days-long 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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