WASHINGTON, March 2 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Sunday called for a diplomatic approach to resolve what he described as a "dangerous situation" in Ukraine.
The Pentagon chief emphasized that diplomacy would be the appropriate path to support Ukraine, which he called a sovereign, independent nation.
"This is a time for careful, wise, steady leadership," Hagel said on CBS's "Face the Nation" program. "The tensions increase and I think all nations have to be very careful here of not promoting any more tension through provocative action."
The secretary explained the U.S. Defense Department's strategic interest in Ukraine upon his recent return from a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.
"They have been a responsible, new independent member of the global community since the implosion of the Soviet Union," Hagel said of Ukraine. "We have European Union and NATO interests that border Ukraine and these are people who want to be free, who deserve to be free."
Tensions flared up in Crimea, an autonomous republic of Ukraine, following the dismissal of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych a week ago by a parliament controlled by West-leaning opposition, which favored integration with the European Union instead of closer ties with Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday asked for and was granted authorization to use military force to protect Russian interests in Ukraine, a move that has sparked an immediate outcry from Western countries, which have been jockeying for influence in the East European country with Russia.
NATO on Sunday condemned Russia's military escalation in Crimea of southern Ukraine and expressed its grave concern regarding the authorization by the Russian Parliament to use the armed forces on Ukrainian territory.
In a telephone conversation Sunday with Obama, Putin said his country retained the right to protect its interests and Russian speakers living in Ukraine if violence spread in eastern Ukrainian regions and Crimea in the south.
Citing "real threats" to life and health of Russian citizens and Russian-speakers living in Ukraine, Putin attributed Russia's possible military move to "provocative and criminal actions by ultra-nationalistic elements that are actually encouraged by current authorities in Kiev," the Interfax news agency said.
In a conversation with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Putin said Russia could not stay aside if violent actions were taken against Russian-speakers in eastern Ukrainian regions and Crimea. Russia and Ukraine have deep cultural, historical and economic connections.
Russia would take necessary measures according to international law, he added. But both sides agreed that further escalation of the crisis in Ukraine should be averted.