Diplomatic efforts to calm the Ukraine crisis inched forward Monday, with Moscow saying it would consider Western proposals for talks on the standoff but insisting Crimea had the right to secede.
Britain said Russian President Vladimir Putin had promised to meet with his foreign minister Monday to discuss the possibility of creating an "international contact group" -- his first indication he may be willing to take part in the talks being pushed by the US and Germany to ease the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
But that embryonic sign of diplomatic progress came against the backdrop of Putin's recognition Sunday of Crimea's self-declared leaders as the breakaway peninsula's "legitimate" authorities.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuked the Russian strongman for his comments, telling him Crimea's planned March 16 referendum on joining Russia was illegal.
In phone calls with Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin in turn accused Ukraine's new government of failing to rein in "ultra-nationalist and radical forces" in the movement that swept it to power after toppling pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in three months of protests.
Defying Western condemnation of the referendum in Crimea, where Russia has seized de facto control, Putin said the Black Sea peninsula's pro-Russian authorities were acting "based on international law".
But Ukraine's new leadership got crucial backing as US President Barack Obama invited interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to the White House on Wednesday, a meeting that will boost the credibility of the new government -- still not recognised by Russia -- and give the country a chance to iron out the details of crucial Western economic aid.
Ukraine could also sign a landmark agreement on closer ties with the European Union -- the deal Yanukovych spurned, sparking the protests against him -- as soon as March 17, the new government said.