The Kremlin has reportedly agreed to support an observer mission in Crimea. Meanwhile, Russia has conducted military exercises near the Ukrainian border, while Kyiv has voted to establish a new national guard.
Moscow on Thursday dropped its opposition to the deployment of a 100-person international observer mission in Crimea, according to the Swiss chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"The Russian Federation supported the idea of a rapid approval and rapid deployment of a special monitoring mission for Ukraine," Thomas Greminger, Switzerland's ambassador to the OSCE, told reporters after meeting with other envoys in Vienna on Thursday.
Greminger called the apparent shift a “big step forward,” but warned that serious negotiations with Moscow on the issue had only begun on Thursday.
Berlin draws a line
Word from Vienna of a positive Russian shift on the OSCE observer mission came after Western leaders stepped up pressure on the Kremlin earlier in the day.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been slower than some of her American and European counterparts to support punitive measures, issued her toughest condemnation yet of Moscow's intervention in Crimea. The chancellor called Russia's actions a clear breach of international law.
Arguably the EU's most powerful leader, Merkel warned Russia that it would face tough economic sanctions if it did not back down in Crimea.
“If Russia continues down the course of the past weeks, it would not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” Merkel told the German parliament on Thursday.
“As Russia's neighbors, we would not only consider it a threat. It would not only change the relationship of the European Union as a whole with Russia,” she continued.
“Not least of all, it would massively damage Russia, both economically and politically,” the chancellor said.
The military situation in the region appeared to escalate on Thursday. Ukraine's parliament voted to create a national guard of 60,000 volunteers to defend against a possible Russian invasion.
Meanwhile, Moscow confirmed that Russian forces conducted military exercises near the Ukrainian border. The Defense Ministry said that some 8,500 troops were testing artillery and rocket launchers, while 4,000 paratroopers, 36 airplanes and 500 armored vehicles held separate maneuvers.
Moscow also deployed six SU-27 fighter jets to neighboring Belarus, after NATO increased air patrols over the Baltic states and Romania. The US has sent a dozen F-16 warplanes and 300 additional military personnel to Poland.
The Ukrainian border patrol accused pro-Russian forces in Crimea of firing on one of its unarmed reconnaissance planes on Thursday. The border patrol provided no further details about whether or not the plane had been harmed.
slk/kms (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)