Lawmakers on the flashpoint Crimean peninsula yesterday voted for independence from Ukraine ahead of a referendum on joining Russia while Washington rebuffed talks with Moscow in one of their fiercest clashes since the cold war.
The hold of Kiev's new Western-backed leaders on the separatist region loosened still further when pro-Kremlin gunmen seized the air traffic control tower at Crimea's main international airport and cancelled all flights except for those to and from Moscow.
The latest escalation of Europe's worst crisis in decades came moments after ousted president Viktor Yanukovych defiantly vowed to return to Kiev from Russia and declared he was still the head of the former Soviet state.
Kiev rejects Sunday's referendum and is appealing to Western powers for both diplomatic backing and pressure on Moscow.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation responded to the threat of all-out war on Europe's eastern edge by announcing the planned deployment of AWAC reconnaissance planes in member countries Poland and Romania to monitor any Russian movements.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, turned down a visit to Russia and a possible meeting with President Vladimir Putin in a diplomatic rebuff that left Kremlin officials enraged.
Crimea's parliamentary assembly had earlier voted to actually join Russia and the latest move appeared to be primarily aimed at creating a legal framework for applying to become a part of Russia as a sovereign state.
A parliamentary statement referred to Kosovo's US-backed separation from Serbia and said "the unilateral declaration of independence of part of a state does not violate any international laws". Russia's foreign ministry quickly endorsed the decision as "absolutely lawful".