WASHINGTON - The United States and Germany are talking tougher over Russia's involvement in Ukraine ahead of a planned referendum in Crimea on Sunday.
Reiterating warnings that the world would not sit idly by if Moscow attempts to absorb the peninsula, both US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of the consequences Russia could face.
"Conflicts of interest in the middle of Europe in the 21st century can only be overcome by not resorting to the methods of the 19th and 20th centuries but to the principles and means of our time, the 21st century," Dr Merkel said.
If Russia does not back down, she said in the German Lower House, "it won't just be a catastrophe for Ukraine, it would also cause massive economic and political harm to Russia".
Dr Merkel said European Union foreign ministers would meet on Monday to impose asset freezes and visa restrictions on Russia if it did not move to reach a diplomatic solution by then.
Mr Obama, meeting interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Washington, once again warned Russia that it would "apply a cost" if Moscow tries to annex Crimea - sticking to wording vague enough so as not to preclude the possibility of military retaliation.
Yet he was quick to highlight his desired outcome. "There's another path available, and we hope that (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin is willing to seize that path," said Mr Obama.
"But if he does not, I'm very confident that the international community will stand strongly behind the Ukrainian government in preserving its unity and its territorial integrity," he added.
That path appears to involve the possibility of a future Crimea that is not part of Ukraine, although both leaders made it clear that such a secession could not emerge out of Sunday's vote.
"This is a pre-ordained referendum, with an expected result. It seems to me they have already cast the ballots," said Mr Yatsenyuk during a dialogue at the Atlantic Council in Washington.
But he not did rule out a constitutional referendum and also outlined the steps to how one might take place. "We as the Ukrainian government are ready to start a nationwide dialogue on how to increase the rights of the autonomous Republic of Crimea, starting with taxes and ending with other aspects like language issues," Mr Yatsenyuk said.
The Ukrainian premier added that the discussion would have to take place in the Ukrainian Parliament, with all parties at the table "discussing every single issue".
He said: "What we need to do, we need to pass a law in the House, which allows a so-called local referendum, and only afterwards, this referendum could be a constitutional one."
Mr Obama, who pledged continuing US support for Ukraine, also floated the idea, directly addressing the idea of a lawful Crimean secession for the first time since Russian troops entered the region.
"There is a constitutional process in place and a set of elections that they can move forward on that, in fact, could lead to different arrangements over time with the Crimean region but that is not something that can be done with the barrel of a gun pointed at you," he said at a joint press conference with Mr Yatsenyuk.
The White House played host to Ukraine's acting head of state in what administration officials described as a message to Russia that the US "strongly supports Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government".
The remarks by the leaders on Thursday appear to lay the groundwork for an option that US Secretary of State John Kerry is likely to bring to a meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov today: Get out of Crimea and and they may well vote legitimately to join Russia.
That such a meeting is going ahead could be a sign that Russia is willing to compromise. Mr Kerry postponed a trip to Moscow earlier this week.
The State Department said it would return to the table when there was "concrete evidence" Russia was willing to approach discussions in a serious way.
For all the support for Ukraine on show in the US capital on Wednesday, however, a Bill to send US$1 billion (S$1.27 billion) in aid remains stuck in Congress.
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