Russian President Vladimir Putin defended breakaway moves by the pro-Russian leaders of Crimea on Sunday in a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
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 said in a written statement.
Putin has said that Ukraine's new leaders seized power in an unconstitutional 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 integrity.
"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.
German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said in an interview published on Sunday that he had told Putin at a meeting in Moscow last week that he should think about the impact of his decisions on the future of Europe.
"I told him that he personally has a big responsibility to prevent the threat of a new division of Europe," he told Spiegel magazine. Asked how he found Putin, Gabriel said: "Friendly in his tone but firm on the issue".
Gabriel said from a European viewpoint, Russia's course of action in Crimea was "quite simply against international law".
"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 clever manner," he said.
(Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Moscow and by Michelle Martin in Berlin, Writing by Lidia Kelly, Editing by Timothy Heritage)