Diplomats gathered in Paris on Wednesday in an effort to end tensions in Ukraine as the West pushed for a de-escalation of Russian military build-up in the Crimea
Talks in the French capital involving envoys from Ukraine, Russia and Western powers are expected to be followed by a face-to-face meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart in Moscow, Sergei Lavrov.
As high-level diplomats attempted to find a solution to the ongoing situation in Ukraine, the E.U. sought to provide economic support for the cash-strapped country.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the E.U. was prepared to provide $15 billion of financial support to Ukraine over the next couple of years through loans and grants to help the country pull back from the brink of economic collapse.
The day before Russian President Vladimir Putin had said that his country reserved the right to use military force to protect Russians living in Ukraine but would do so only as a last resort.
Breaking his silence on events in Ukraine since massive pro-Europe protests forced out Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovich last month, Putin skirted questions about Russian troops' taking control of Ukraine's Crimea, saying the armed men who seized buildings there over the past few days were local forces.
Putin's remarks drew strong reactions from world leaders, who threatened sanctions if Russia maintained its foothold in Ukraine. The envoys from Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., Britain and France are not necessarily all at the same table, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said everyone has been working non-stop for a diplomatic solution over tensions in Ukraine.
"We have a principle of firmness but at the same time of searching for dialogue," Fabius said as he stood alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, making his first trip abroad in the new post.
Russia took over Crimea on Saturday, placing troops around its ferry, military bases and border posts.
"Today the Ukrainian future will be decided," Andriy Deshchytsia, Ukraine's foreign minister, said of the meetings in Paris. "We want to keep neighborly relations with the Russian people. We want to settle this peacefully."
Wednesday's gathering, originally scheduled to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, came after Putin appeared to step back from the brink of war, but the crisis is far from resolved.
Amid the tension, Russia announced Tuesday that it had successfully test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile was fired from the southern Astrakhan region, and the dummy warhead hit its target at a proving ground in Kazakhstan, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Yegorov told state-run news agency RIA.
U.S. officials said the missile launch was planned before Ukraine and Russia became embroiled in the crisis in Crimea.
In his press conference Tuesday, Putin distanced himself from Yanukovich and warned that any countries considering sanctions should think of the damage they would incur.
"There can be only one assessment of what happened in Kiev, in Ukraine in general. This was an anti-constitutional coup and the armed seizure of power. No one argues with this. Who can argue with it?" Putin said, looking relaxed as he sat before a small group of reporters at his residence near Moscow.
"As for bringing in forces, for now there is no such need, but such a possibility exists," he said. "What could serve as a reason to use military force? It would naturally be the last resort, absolutely the last."
Putin said Russia would not encourage separatist moves in Ukraine, where many people in the east and south have closer ties to Russia than to the new leaders in Kiev, who are seeking stronger relations with the European Union.
Putin insisted that the Russian military deployment in Ukraine's strategic Crimean Peninsula has remained within the limits of a bilateral agreement on a Russian military base there. He said Russia has no intentions of annexing Crimea, but he insisted that its residents have the right to determine the region's status in a referendum set for this month.
"We are not going to meddle. But we think all Ukraine's citizens, no matter where they live, should have the same rights to ... determine the future of their country," he said.
Putin seemed to place blame for the events in Ukraine on the United States, since Washington backed the protesters. He also implied that Washington was hypocritical in its criticism of Russia.
"Let's remember what the U.S. did in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya," he said. "We believe we are completely legitimate in what we are doing."