KIEV, Ukraine--Ukrainians are casting ballots Sunday in a presidential election seen as essential for stabilizing the country rocked by a deadly uprising in the east, where pro-Russia rebels have vowed to block the ballot.
The vote is held three months after the ouster of the country's pro-Russia leader, who was chased from power by months of protests triggered by his decision to reject a political and economic pact with the European Union and keep close ties with Moscow.
Polls have shown billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko with a commanding lead, but it's short of the absolute majority needed to win in the first round, so a runoff set for June 15 is expected. Poroshenko's nearest challenger is Yulia Tymoshenko, the divisive former prime minister who is far behind.
Sunday's vote is taking place despite deadly fighting in the east, where pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings and are clashing with government forces. The rebels, who have declared two sprawling regions independent, have said they wouldn't allow the vote, which they described as an election in "a neighboring country."
Ukraine's deputy interior minister, Serhiy Yarovyi, said Saturday that police are ready to ensure order and security at polling stations in just nine of the 34 electoral districts in the east.
The interim Kiev government and the West are accusing Russia of backing the uprising after it annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March. Moscow has denied the accusations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday said the Kremlin would "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and would be ready to work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease the worst crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of Western sanctions.
Ukraine's acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said in a televised address late Friday that the election will be the first step to stabilize the situation in the east.
"I would like to assure all my compatriots in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions who will be prevented from going to the polling stations by the war waged on Ukraine: The criminals don't have much time left to terrorize our land," Yatsenyuk said.