Ukrainian forces killed three pro-Russian militants in the country's restive east overnight, ahead of international crisis talks in Geneva between top diplomats representing Kiev, Moscow, the United States and European Union.
Special police forces and members of Ukraine's national guard responded to an attack on their base in the city of Mariupol by about 300 people, three of whom were killed, 13 injured and 63 detained, according to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.
He said weapons and “means of communication and telephones from Russian operators” were taken from the raiders, who resembled other groups of gunmen who have seized official buildings in about 10 towns in the nearby Donetsk province.
Backed by many local Russian-speakers, they are demanding a referendum on transferring many powers from Kiev to the regions, or even joining Russia.
Ukraine’s new pro-western government claims Russian agents are behind unrest that the Kremlin says could spark civil war, and rejects demands for federalisation that would give Moscow great influence in Russian-speaking areas.
In his annual televised question-and-answer session, Mr Putin said this morning that claims of Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine were "nonsense".
“There are no Russian agents in eastern Ukraine. There are only local people protesting.”
As participants in the first major talks of their kind on Ukraine gathered in Geneva, Mr Putin said Kiev was committing a “grave crime” by using the military to put down unrest, and warned it could pitch the country into “the abyss”.
“Only through dialogue, through democratic procedures and not with the use of armed forces, tanks and planes can order be imposed in the country,” he said.
“We need to think together to find a way out of this crisis…We need to sit at the negotiating table and find a solution together…I’m sure we will come to a mutual understanding with Ukraine. We will not be able to do without each other.”
Mr Putin also urged Kiev to “engage in dialogue with the people and with those who have the confidence of the people” in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow had previously suggested that the Geneva talks would be pointless without the participation of politicians from eastern regions - most of whom were close allies with President Viktor Yanukovich, who fled to Russia in late February.
On the eve of the talks, Ukraine's foreign minister Andrei Deshchytsia said there "still a chance to de-escalate the situation using the diplomatic means. And we are trying hard."
The EU and US have imposed sanctions on Russian political and business figures with ties to the Kremlin, and pledged to go further if Russia continued its alleged interference in Ukraine. The West says some 40,000 of Moscow’s troops are massed near Ukraine’s eastern border, and could invade within hours if given the order.
"Each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to de-stabilise Ukraine and violate their sovereignty, there are going to be consequences," US president Barack Obama said last night.