Ukrainian comedian and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky shows his ballot to the media at a polling station. Photo: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, who plays president on a popular television show, has defeated incumbent President Petro Poroshenko with more than 70% of the vote to win Ukraine's presidential election, according to exit polls.

The big picture: This was Ukraine's first presidential election without a clear pro-Kremlin candidate, reflecting a shift for a country that has been increasingly drawn toward the West since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Zelensky, who lacked any sort of a formal campaign, has promised that as a fresh face on the political scene, he can shepherd lasting structural change that career politicians cannot.

  • The incumbent Poroshenko's unpopularity is tied to his failure to tackle corruption. Poroshenko has suggested the inexperienced Zelensky would be a dream come true for Vladimir Putin.

Claire Kaiser, an expert on Eastern Europe at McLarty Associates, tells Axios that Zelensky will have to build a strong national security team and send an early signal he has a handle on foreign policy.

  • "Anyone running the show in Ukraine has the dual challenge of managing the economy and finding some sort of solution to the war in the East," she says.
  • Kaiser says Zelensky hasn't sent any signals that he plans to shift Ukraine's orientation away from Europe and the U.S., so while "there will definitely be a getting to know you phase," U.S. policy toward Ukraine is unlikely to change significantly.

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