Updated Mar 31, 2019

Ukraine heads to polls in first election without pro-Kremlin candidate

Ukrainian presidential frontrunner Volodymyr Zelensky on the set of "Servant of the People," where he plays ... the president of Ukraine. Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine heads to the polls on Sunday for the first round of its presidential election, a turning point vote for a nation long under the shadow of — and in open conflict with — Russia.

Why it matters: Ukrainians "want to be part of the West. They want to build a functioning democracy that guarantees their prosperity," says Daniel Twining, the president of the International Republican Institute, who spoke to Axios from Kiev.

  • And, for the U.S., "this is the front line in the struggle between the free world and the autocratic spheres of influence Putin wants to build."

The big picture: It's 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.

  • And the country is looking inward as voters cite Russian influence, the fight against corruption, and its economic outlook as their primary concerns, says Twining.

The players:

  • Volodymyr Zelensky, currently leading the polls, isn't the president yet, but he already plays the role on TV. The comedian, who lacks any sort of a formal campaign, is promising that, as a fresh face on the political scene, he can shepherd lasting structural change that career politicians cannot.
  • Yulia Tymoshenko was one of the leading figures in 2004's Orange Revolution against fraud in that year's election and served as prime minister in 2005 and from 2007 to 2010. She later spent three years in prison on embezzlement charges that were ruled to have been politically motivated.
  • Petro Poroshenko is the incumbent president and has overseen the country's shift onto its pro-Western path, promising voters that his re-election would mean that Ukraine could eventually apply to join the EU and NATO.

The state of play: Ukraine is a "staging ground" for Russian electoral interference tactics given their common culture and language, says Twining. "If you want to run an interference operation here, you can do it. You don't need to do it as a sort of covert operation as you would in the West."

  • Russian hackers infiltrated Ukraine's central election system days before the 2014 election, allegedly destroying vote-tallying software in the process, per the Christian Science Monitor. They also installed malware — discovered only 40 minutes before announcement of the final results — that would have announced an ultra-nationalist candidate as the victor in the presidential race.

What's next: No candidate is expected to win 50% of the vote outright, so the race will likely head to a two-person runoff on April 21, where it's expected Zelensky will face off against either Tymoshenko or Poroshenko.

Go deeper

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3 p.m. ET: 766,336 — Total deaths: 36,873 — Total recoveries: 160,001.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in confirmed cases. Total confirmed cases as of 3 p.m. ET: 153,246 — Total deaths: 2,828 — Total recoveries: 5,545.
  3. Federal government latest: The White House will extend its social distancing guidelines until April 30 — Rep. Nydia Velázquez diagnosed with "presumed" coronavirus infection.
  4. State updates: Virginia and Maryland issued stay-at-home orders to residents, joining 28 other states — Florida megachurch pastor arrested for refusing to call off mass services.
  5. World updates: Spain's cases exceed China's — Italy reports 1,590 recoveries from the virus, its highest ever.
  6. In photos: Navy hospital ship arrives in Manhattan
  7. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Cuomo: Engaging in politics during coronavirus crisis is "anti-American"

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during a Monday press briefing that he won't get into a political tussle with President Trump — calling it "counterproductive" and "anti-American" — as his state deals with the most confirmed coronavirus cases in the country.

The backdrop: Trump said during an appearance on "Fox & Friends" earlier Monday that Cuomo has received high polling numbers during the outbreak because New York has received federal aid.

Maryland and Virginia issue coronavirus stay-at-home orders

Data: Axios reporting; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued stay-at-home orders on Monday, with exceptions for residents engaged in essential services, including health care and government functions.

The big picture: The states are the latest to announce policies to enforce social distancing, which have affected almost 250 million Americans. More than 1.5 billion people worldwide had been asked to stay home as of last week.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 2 hours ago - Health