Ukraine sought urgent Western backing yesterday 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.
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.
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.
Tomorrow's meeting will both boost the credibility of Yatsenyuk's untested government -- not recognised by Russia -- and provide Ukraine with a chance to iron out the details of crucial economic relief for its wheezing economy.