WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama conveyed skepticism Thursday about Russian promises to deescalate a volatile situation in Ukraine, and said the United States 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 they use the influence they have used in a disruptive way so that Ukrainians ... can start back on the road to prosperity and democracy," the president 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.
As an example, 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.
Earlier Thursday, top diplomats from the United States, European Union, Russia and Ukraine reached agreement after marathon talks Thursday on immediate steps to ease the crisis in Ukraine.
The tentative agreement puts on hold - for now at least - additional economic sanctions the West had prepared to impose on Russia if the talks were fruitless. And that will ease international pressure both on Moscow and nervous European Union nations that depend on Russia for their energy.
Reached after seven hours of negotiation in Geneva, the agreement requires all sides to refrain from violence, intimidation or provocative actions. It calls for the disarming of all illegally armed groups and for control of buildings seized by pro-Russian separatists to be turned back to authorities.
Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that in one eastern Ukrainian city notices were sent to Jewish people saying that they had to identify themselves as Jews "or suffer the consequences."
"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," said Kerry. "It is beyond unacceptable, and any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities - from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of - there is no place for that."
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.
In Washington, 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."