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As hostility continues, Russia is watching Ukraine's presidential election closely

Key Points
  • Ukrainians go to the polls this weekend to vote in a presidential election whose result is far from certain.
  • Russia will be keeping a close eye on the result to see how pro-western -- and anti-Russian -- Ukraine's next leader is.
  • This is the first national vote since relations soured with Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014 and then supported an uprising by pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.
The President of Ukraine, Petro (Pyotr) Poroshenko during an interview.
Mikhail Palinchak | TASS | Getty Images

Ukrainians go to the polls this weekend to vote in a presidential election that has a result that is far from certain.

Russia will be keeping a close eye on the result to see how pro-western — or anti-Russian — Ukraine's next leader might be. It is the first national vote since Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014 and subsequently supported an uprising by pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.

The armed conflict in the eastern Donbass region has died down following numerous ceasefires that have been implemented and then collapsed. Attempts to stop the conflict were made in Minsk in late 2014 and again in 2015 (known as the Minsk Agreement) but both sides accuse each other of not complying with agreed conditions.

President Poroshenko's presidency has been dominated by relations with Russia and he has been closely watched for his responses to instances of Russian aggression towards, or provocations of, Ukraine – such as the incident in the Kerch Strait last November in which three Ukrainian Navy vessels were seized.

Ukraine's economic crisis and its 2015 $17.5 billion bailout (and recent $3.9 billion loan) from the International Monetary Fund, as well as its attempts to get closer to the European Union and NATO, have also dominated Poroshenko's tenure. These issues are bound to pressure the new president whoever wins the race.

In the closing days of campaigning before a first round of voting takes place on Sunday, actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky leads public opinion polls ahead of rivals Yulia Tymoshenko and incumbent Petro Poroshenko. If none of the candidates get more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round Sunday then a runoff will be held on April 21.

Russia calling?

All three candidates are seen as pro-western and anti-Russian although Zelensky has signaled that he is willing to negotiate with Russia over the conflict in Donbass. Nonetheless, Russia stands to have far less influence in this year's election after recent hostilities, analysts say.

"The pro-Western stance has become, since 2014, a political consensus difficult to challenge, while the loss of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine considerably weakened parties calling for stronger ties with Russia," Agnese Ortolani, an analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit told CNBC Thursday.

Ethnic Russians currently represent around 10 percent of Ukraine's electorate but up until 2012 around a quarter of the electorate was pro-Russia, Ortolani noted, and this had helped pro-Russian candidates.

"The illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the occupation of the part of the Donbass has de facto eliminated most of the pro-Russian part of the electorate. This is reflected in the low support for the most pro-Russia candidate, Yuriy Boyko, compared to the three key ones."

Three-way race

The election has become a three-way race between Zelensky, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko although at one point there were a record 44 candidates in the running — there are now 39.

The candidate polling in fourth place is pro-Russian candidate Yuri Boyko but he is very unlikely to make it through the first round of voting, analysts say.

Zelensky is leading the polls but he is a newcomer to politics — his nearest experience of presidency playing the president in a hit TV show. A win for incumbent Poroshenko would maintain a certain stability but there have been mutual accusations of corruption between him and Tymoshenko that they have both denied.

Viktor Andrusiv, executive director of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future based in Kiev, told CNBC that Russia will be observing the elections closely but would take a "wait and see" approach to the country's next leader.

"They don't have a candidate that they would prefer to win, apart from Boyko," he said. "They know Poroshenko and they're comfortable with him. In a way, they are accustomed to each other," Adrusiv noted before adding that Russia was more interested in forthcoming parliamentary elections where it might have influence over a bloc of seats and can push their interests in Ukraine's Parliament through pro-Russian candidates.

"For them, the name of the president is not something they're interested in," Andrusiv continued. "Whoever it is, they will have to deal with the situation in Donbass, the economic conditions in Ukraine. The Russians understand that any next president will have to deal with them."

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