BERLIN Germany's foreign minister welcomed on Thursday Russian President Vladimir Putin's call on pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine to delay a vote on secession but also warned events in the east of the country were taking on a momentum of their own.
"We are perhaps at a crucial point," Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement. While the situation in Ukraine remained critical, he said there was a chance diplomacy could stop an escalation of violence and a loss of control in eastern Ukraine.
"I welcome the constructive tone that President Putin struck after his meeting with the head of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). What was discussed in Moscow must now be translated into action immediately."
Putin's appeal to the separatists on Wednesday - five days before a planned vote on independence for two eastern provinces - has been seen as a first sign of a possible breakthrough in the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
However, at an event in Berlin later, Steinmeier said the situation in eastern Ukraine was taking on a "growing momentum of its own".
Some separatist groups appeared to be listening neither to Moscow nor to Kiev and that had "perhaps given a few people in Moscow something to think about", he said.
Pro-Russian separatists voted on Thursday to defy Putin and go ahead with the referendum.
Steinmeier said in the statement that all efforts must be directed at making sure Ukrainian presidential elections take place as planned on May 25 in order to create the foundations for a new constitution.
Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed Steinmeier's call in comments due to be published in the Rheinische Post newspaper on Friday, adding those parties who met in Geneva last month to try to ease the crisis should support the elections and meet again if necessary.
On April 17, the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union struck a deal in Geneva that outlined steps to defuse the situation, including the disarmament of militants and a national dialogue on constitutional reform.
Moscow and Kiev have both accused each other of undermining the deal.
(Additional reporting by Matthias Sobolewski; Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Stephen Brown & Noah Barkin)