SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AFP) - Lawmakers on the flashpoint Crimean peninsula voted on Tuesday 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 ex-Soviet state.
Crimea has been a tinderbox since Russian forces seized control of the rugged peninsula - home to Moscow's Black Sea Fleet since the 18th century - with the help of Kremlin-backed militias days after Yanukovych fled Ukraine last month in response to waves of deadly unrest.
The strategic region's self-declared rulers are recruiting volunteers to fight Ukrainian soldiers while the Russian parliament on Tuesday prepared legislation that would simplify the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea after next Sunday's vote.
But Kiev rejects the referendum and is appealing to Western powers for both diplomatic backing and pressure on Moscow to release its troops' stranglehold on Crimea.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) 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.
And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that sanctions against Russia could come as early as this week if Moscow failed to respond to Western proposals on the standoff.
The European Union also announced trade breaks for Ukraine equivalent to 500 million euros (S$900 million) that could ease its burden from trade restrictions that Russia has threatened in response to Kiev's told toward the West.
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 of immense proportions that left Kremlin officials enraged.
The deep historic divide in the nation of 46 million between its pro-European west and more Russified southeast became ever more apparent as Ukraine's political crisis unfolded following Yanukovych's rejection in November of an historic EU pact in favour of better relations with the Kremlin.
Last month's rise to power in Kiev of nationalist leaders with cultural and political links to Europe prompted Mr Putin to seek the right to use force against Ukraine in defence of the country's Russian speakers.