Ukrainian lawmakers appealed Sunday to Russian President Vladimir Putin to reconsider deploying additional troops in Crimea in order to avoid the military escalation of the current political crisis in the country.
The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, also urged Putin to order the return of Russian military personnel stationed in Crimea to their bases.
"Any movement of troops, equipment and weapons should be made only with the agreement of the competent authorities of Ukraine in accordance with agreements and legislation of Ukraine," the parliament said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Vitali Klitschko, the frontrunner in Ukraine's May 25 presidential elections, said Sunday that the new authorities in Kiev were planning to set up a special commission to start negotiations with Russia with a goal to ease tensions and resolve the Crimean standoff by political dialogue.
"It is imperative now to hold negotiations. We must resolve this issue without the use of force or arms, but through consultations to avoid the bloodshed," Klitschko said in an interview with Ukraine's "1+1" television station.
Crimea, an autonomous republic within Ukraine, is now at the center of the ongoing crisis in the country as pro-Russia groups move to distance themselves fr om a reformed national parliament that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych a week ago.
Russia's upper house of parliament unanimously approved a request from President Vladimir Putin on Saturday to deploy military forces in Ukraine's mainly ethnic Russian-populated region of Crimea.
Putin issued his request in response to what he said was a threat to the lives of Russian citizens and military forces located in naval bases in Crimea.
Putin, who is the Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed Forces, has not yet ordered the deployment of a "lim ited military contingent" in Ukraine, but said in telephone conversations with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US President Barack Obama early on Sunday that Moscow reserved the right to protect its own interests and those of Russian speakers in the event of violence breaking out in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
There is already a substantial Russian military presence in southern Ukraine, courtesy of the leased Black Sea Fleet naval base in the Crimean Peninsula.
Large movements of Russian troops have been reported around the peninsula, which is in defiance of express instructions from Ukrainian authorities this week for Russian soldiers to remain confined to their quarters.
Meanwhile, thousands of pro-Moscow protesters staged a number of rallies in eastern Ukraine on Saturday backing the anti-Kiev stance of the Crimean population and calling for Russia to defend them as well.
New authorities in Kiev have already responded to Russia's plans by putting the army on high alert, calling up all military reserves, and closing Ukraine's airspace for any non-civilian aircraft.
As expected, Russia's sabre rattling over Ukraine drew sharp criticism from the West.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that Moscow's aggressive stance was threatening regional peace and security and warned of deep damage to Russian ties with the international community.
"Unless immediate and concrete steps are taken by Russia to deescalate tensions, the effect on US-Russian relations and on Russia's international standing will be profound," Kerry said in a statement, echoing earlier remarks by President Obama.
Kerry continued to threaten Russia on Sunday with "very serious repercussions" from the United States and other countries, including possible economic sanctions.
The West is "prepared to go to the hilt to isolate Russia," Kerry said in an interview with CBS, adding that Russia may lose its membership in G-8 as well as face visa bans and asset freezes.
The United States, Great Britain, Canada and France have already announced the suspension of their participation in preparatory meetings for a G-8 summit due to be held in June in the southern Russian city of Sochi, which last month hosted the Winter Olympics.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged Russia on Sunday to ease tensions over Ukrainian crisis as Moscow's threats against Kiev undermined regional security.
"Russia must stop its military activity and its threats," he said before opening an extraordinary meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO's main governing body, to discuss events in Ukraine.