Ukraine's embattled leaders launched round-table talks yesterday as part of a Western-backed push to prevent the country falling apart, vowing they would not bow to "blackmail" by pro-Russian rebels waging an insurgency in the east.
The so-called national unity discussions - which crucially do not involve the insurgents - are happening barely two weeks before Ukraine holds a presidential election that the West is scrambling to keep alive.
European leaders have been working to bring Kiev and pro-Moscow separatists together under a roadmap sponsored by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
But shortly before the talks started, Russia bluntly warned that the former Soviet republic was already on the brink of civil war and demanded that the insurgents be invited to the negotiating table.
Ukraine's interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, who said yesterday that the loss of the strategic Black Sea peninsula had cost Ukraine's struggling economy US$100 billion, opened the discussions saying Kiev was ready to negotiate but the rebels must first lay down their arms.
"Those with weapons in hand who are waging a war against their own country and dictating the will of a neighbouring country will answer before the law. We will not yield to blackmail," he said.
The east of Ukraine remains on edge, with deadly violence erupting often as government troops battle the separatists who have seized over a dozen towns and cities since early last month.
The crisis showed no signs of easing despite the flurry of diplomatic efforts following hotly disputed weekend independence referendums in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk that raised fears of partition.
"When Ukrainians kill Ukrainians I believe this is as close to a civil war as you can get," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with Bloomberg television. But he said Moscow had no intention of sending in troops to eastern Ukraine.