Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on Tuesday that his government had made the first "timid" contacts with Russian leaders aimed at resolving the crisis in his ex-Soviet state.
The dramatic announcement came four days after President Vladimir Putin won parliament's authorisation to use force against Russia's neighbour in response to three months of protests that swept pro-Kremlin leaders from power and installed a new Western-backed team in charge.
There was no immediate response from Russia to Yatsenyuk's comments and the Ukranian premier himself stood firmly behind his government's decision to distance itself from Moscow's rule.
But the contacts came in the midst of a visit to Kiev by US Secretary of State John Kerry and appeared to reflect combined efforts by Washington and its European allies to prevent an all-out confrontation from flaring up on Europe's eastern edge.
"So far, (the talks) have been rather timid. But the first steps have been made," Yatsenyuk said in a statement issued after he and interim president Oleksandr Turchynov met Kerry during the US diplomat's first visit to Ukraine since the political crisis first erupted in November.
Yatsenyuk also reaffirmed his government's commitment to signing a key EU trade deal that ousted president Viktor Yanukovych rejected in November in favour of closer ties with Kiev's historic masters in Moscow.
The shock decision sparked three months of protests against his rule that culminated in a week of carnage in which nearly 100 died and led to his exile in Russia.
Putin had earlier appeared to leave little room for negotiations in his first extensive remarks on the crisis since winning parliamentary approval to use force against the culturally splintered nation of 46 million.
"Are today's authorities legitimate? The parliament -- partially yes. All the others -- no,' Putin said.
"And at the highest level, I have no partner there. There is no president there," he said in reference to Turchynov -- an interim leader approved by Ukraine's parliament and recognised both by EU nations and the United States.
- Loan talks -
Yatsenyuk said the consultations with Moscow mainly concerned the status of a $15-billion loan package that Putin promised to Yanukovych in December as a reward for his decision to put the EU deal on hold.
"We would like to understand Russia's position about the signed agreement on extending a number of financial instruments to Ukraine, and on extending credits to Ukraine," Yatsenyuk said.
He said Kiev specifically wanted to know whether Moscow still intended to provide the next $2.0-billion tranche of the $15-billion bailout as promised.
"We would like to hear a firm answer from the Russian Federation -- is Russia going to honour the obligations that it assumed several months ago?"
He added that Ukraine expected "Russia to realise its responsibility for destabilising the security situation in Europe, and acknowledge that Ukraine is an independent state."
The December deal also saw Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom promise to slash by a third the price it charges Ukraine for its natural gas shipments.
Gazprom's chief Alexei Miller said on Tuesday that the firm would end its discount in April and instead offer Ukraine a loan of up to $3.0 billion. The energy giant claims Ukraine owes it $1.55 billion for unpaid gas.
EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in Brussels that the 28-nation bloc was ready to help Kiev cover its arrears to Gazprom as part of an aid package reportedly worth more than one billion euros.
Yatsenyuk stressed in his statement that the debt had been incurred "by the previous government and the previous president".