MOSCOW - Moscow and Kiev representatives will meet in Minsk Monday after Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the stakes in the Ukraine conflict by calling for statehood to be discussed for the restive east of the former Soviet state.
Putin's remarks on Sunday came just hours after the European Union gave Moscow - which the bloc accuses of direct involvement in the Ukraine insurgency - a week to change course or face new sanctions.
"We need to immediately begin substantive talks... on questions of the political organisation of society and statehood in southeastern Ukraine," the Russian leader was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.
Moscow has previously only called for "federalisation" that would grant greater rights to the eastern regions of Ukraine, where predominantly Russian-speakers live.
But Putin had sparked speculation that he may be seeking to create a pro-Russian statelet when he began to employ the loaded tsarist-era term "Novorossiya", or New Russia, to refer to several regions in southeast Ukraine.
His spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Sunday that Putin was not talking about "Novorossiya's" independence from Ukraine, but rather "inclusive talks".
"Only Ukraine can agree with Novorossiya," he was quoted as saying.
Kiev has warned that it was on the brink of "full-scale war" with Moscow over the crisis in its east, which Europe fears would put the whole continent at risk of conflict.
The EU agreed to take "further significant steps" if Moscow did not rein in its support for the rebels, with new sanctions to be drawn up within a week.
Terrorists and Russian Soldiers
Kiev said the invigorated rebel push of the past days has included substantial numbers of Russian regular army contingents, which are now concentrating their forces in major towns.
"Terrorists and Russian soldiers continue to concentrate personnel and equipment in regional centres," said security spokesman Andriy Lysenko.
Representatives of Kiev, Moscow and the OSCE were due to meet in Minsk, the capital of Belarus which borders both countries, on Monday under the so-called Contact Group on Ukraine.
It was unclear whether Ukrainian separatists would take part.
Russia has insisted repeatedly that Kiev must speak with rebels holding parts of east Ukraine if the conflict is to be resolved.
Kiev, however, has been reluctant to sit down at the table with the separatists, especially when many of their leaders are Russian.