By Daniel Bases
UNITED NATIONS, March 20 (Reuters) - Russian and Ukrainian defense officials have made contact in an effort to reduce potential armed confrontation in Crimea, the United Nations said on Thursday, indicating some movement toward defusing the worst East-West conflict since the end of the Cold War.
"The secretary general was encouraged that we see, like we saw today, a working level, if I can call it that, between senior defense officials to de-escalate some of the flashpoints that we saw in Crimea," the spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a teleconference briefing with reporters from Moscow.
The spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters in New York that Ban met President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation and said the message of de-escalation and effort to find a diplomatic solution was "well received" by from the Russian officials that Ban met with in Moscow.
Ban met Putin as Russia's lower house of parliament voted to approve a treaty the Russian leader signed on Tuesday to absorb the Ukrainian region of Crimea into Russia.
The Russian military said on Thursday that Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh had called Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday and they "continued discussions of ... the crisis situation in Ukraine and measures to de-escalate the situation on the Crimean peninsula."
Moscow said it would boost its military presence in Crimea to protect against external threats, Russia's state news agency Itar-Tass said.
Crimea is home to Russia's long-time Black Sea naval fleet. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in parliament, said Ukrainian soldiers left outside the military bases taken over by Russian troops would be able to choose whom to serve.
Ukraine and Western governments say Russia has illegally seized control of Crimea from Kiev. Russia denies this, saying Crimea voted for union with Russia in a referendum; the West regards the referendum as illegitimate.
Ban travels to Kiev on Friday with an aim to foster direct talks between the leaders of Ukraine and Russia. (Additional reporting by Mirjam Donath in New York and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by Leslie Adler)