Pro-Russian demonstrators ride on a motorcycle as they take
part in a rally in Donetsk, Ukraine. REUTERS/Konstantin
Russian President Vladimir Putin defended breakaway moves
by the pro-Russian leaders of Crimea in a phone call with
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister
David Cameron, according to the Kremlin.
The three leaders spoke amid tensions on the Black Sea
peninsula since the Moscow-backed regional parliament
declared the Ukrainian region part of Russia and announced a
March 16 referendum to confirm this..
"Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin underlined in particular that
the steps taken by Crimea's legitimate authorities are based
on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate
interests of the peninsula's population," the Kremlin said.
"The Russian president also drew the attention of his
interlocutors to the lack of any action by the present
authorities in Kiev to limit the rampant behaviour of
ultra-nationalists and radical forces in the capital and in
many regions," it added in a written statement.
Merkel, however, told Putin the referendum violated Ukraine's
constitution and was against international law, a statement
from the German government said.
German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told German public
broadcaster ARD that as the referendum was "against
international law", it would be difficult to prevent boycott
measures or economic sanctions.
"It's no secret we Germans and the government don't want
this, because we know there will ultimately be no winners,
but Europe cannot just stand by and watch," he said.
"COMMON INTEREST" IN EASING TENSIONS
Putin has said that Ukraine's new leaders seized power in an
armed coup and that Russia has the right to invade Ukraine to
protect Russians living in the former Soviet republic.
Russian officials have been increasingly portraying Kiev's
leadership as radical nationalists backed by the West, but
the European Union and the United States have condemned
Moscow's move as interfering with Ukrainian territorial
"Despite the differences in the assessments of what is
happening, they (Putin, Merkel, Cameron) expressed a common
interest in de-escalation of the tensions and normalisation
of the situation as soon as possible," the Kremlin said.
Merkel regretted that there had not been any progress on
forming an "international contact group" which could find a
political solution to the crisis in Ukraine, the German
"She pointed out the urgency of finally coming to a
substantial result on this," it said.
On Thursday, Merkel said if no international contact group
was formed in the coming days and no progress was made in
negotiations with Russia, it was possible the European Union
would impose on Russia further sanctions like travel
restrictions and freezing financial accounts.
Gabriel told ARD that during his meeting with Putin in Moscow
last week, the Russian president had not said no to forming
an "international contact group", which Germany is calling
for, but he did not agree to it either.
"My impression is that the Russians are not yet aware that
they hold the responsibility in their hands for the whole of
Europe falling back into the time of the Cold War," he said.
In a separate interview published on Sunday, Gabriel told
Spiegel magazine: "We need a de-escalation and that can only
happen via talks. It's not a question now of whether we react
in a 'hard' or 'soft' manner; rather we have to act in a
Asked how he found Putin, Gabriel said: "Friendly in his tone
but firm on the issue".