KIEV: Ukraine sought urgent Western backing on Monday after Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that Crimea had the right to join his country even while hinting at a readiness for dialogue.
The pro-European team in Kiev that rode the wave of three months of deadly protests to topple a Kremlin-backed regime is running against the clock to preserve the territorial integrity of the culturally splintered nation of 46 million.
The self-declared leadership on the predominantly ethnic Russian peninsula of Crimea has proclaimed independence from Kiev and set a March 16 referendum on switching over to Kremlin rule.
The decision has been condemned by Western powers who are also furious at Moscow’s seizure of Crimea in a lightning but bloodless operation that began days after the February 22 fall and subsequent escape to Russia of president Viktor Yanukovych.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel—whose cautious approach to imposing sanctions on Russia has clashed with the more hawkish positions of Eastern European nations and the United States—bluntly told Putin on Sunday that the Crimean referendum was “illegal.”
The most explosive East-West crisis since the Cold War was stoked further when the Kremlin said Putin told both Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron that he fully recognized the actions of the Crimean leaders—in power since an end of February seizure of the local parliament and government by pro-Kremlin gunmen.
The Kremlin said Putin stressed “the steps undertaken by the legitimate authorities of Crimea are based on the norms of international law”—a comment hinting strongly that the Kremlin was ready to annex Crimea after handing the peninsula as a “gift” to Ukraine when it was a part of the Soviet empire in 1954.
But Merkel’s office also said Putin had promised to discuss with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday the creation of an “international contact group” on Ukraine that he had resisted in the past.
Germany is pushing the group’s creation as a way of avoiding an all-out war breaking out on the eastern edge of Europe that would see Ukraine call for Western help against its nuclear-armed neighbor.
The embryonic sign of diplomatic progress came as Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk prepared to fly to Washington for his first meeting with US President Barack Obama —pushing a peace plan that includes support for Ukrainian presidential elections on May 25.
Wednesday’s meeting will both boost the credibility of Yatsenyuk’s untested government—not recognized by Russia—and provide Ukraine with a chance to iron out the details of crucial economic relief for its wheezing economy.
“This is a very important visit,” Ukraine’s interim Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya told Kiev’s 1+1 television late on Sunday.
“We hope that during these negotiations, we will find joint approaches to solving the situation around Crimea.”