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Ukrainian, Russian and Western diplomats held emergency talks in Switzerland on Thursday, in the hope of resolving a deepening crisis that has seen armed pro-Russian protesters seize swaths of Ukraine. The unrest in the restive east, which shares a border with Russia, is spiraling so fast, it has left diplomacy writhing in the dust. In the southeastern city of Mariupol, a gang of 300 attacked a Ukrainian military base Thursday, leading to gunfire between the two sides. In Donetsk, the self-declared chairman of the people’s council said he wants a referendum by May 11 to ask residents if they wanted sovereignty. And in Slaviansk, pro-Russian militants are firmly in control.

Amid it all, the U.S. is talking fresh sanctions, which will certainly not make the mood in Russia more conciliatory.  Such are the challenges the European Union and the United States confronted when bringing together the Kremlin and Kiev on Thursday to find a way out of the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War. Kiev’s embattled new leaders are struggling to reassert their authority in eastern towns largely controlled by armed pro-Russian separatists. They have tried dialogue and a show of force, both to little effect. The Geneva gathering will be the first meeting since the crisis worsened. Speaking in a televised question-and-answer session, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the talks were important “to figure out how to get out of this situation.” However, he also reiterated his thoughts about Kiev’s new interim government — in place since pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February after months of protests — calling it “illegitimate” and without a national mandate. More