Russia will recognise the outcome of Ukraine's presidential vote tomorrow, Vladimir Putin said yesterday, and hoped that Ukraine's new leader would halt the military operation against separatists in the east.
In Kiev, Ukraine's caretaker president urged all voters to take part in the vote to "cement the foundation of our nation".
Yet pro-Russia insurgents were still battling government forces yesterday in eastern Ukraine, where a vote boycott and threats against poll workers were disrupting the prospects of the ballot taking place.
At least three people died in fighting a day after insurgents killed 16 Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint.
Speaking at an investment forum in St Petersburg, Putin said Russia would "respect the choice of the Ukrainian people" and would work with the new leadership. He said Russia wanted peace and order to be restored.
He also voiced hopes of mending ties with the US and the European Union, which have slapped asset freezes and travel bans on members of Putin's entourage and had threatened to introduce more sanctions if Russia tried to derail the vote.
Putin blamed the crisis on what he described as Western "snobbery". He said: "They supported the coup and plunged the country into chaos, and now they try to blame us for that and have us clean up their mess."
Twenty-one candidates are competing to become Ukraine's next leader.
Polls show billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko with a commanding lead but falling short of the absolute majority needed to win in the first round.
His nearest challenger is Yulia Tymoshenko, the divisive former prime minister, who is trailing by a significant margin.
Poroshenko pledged to unite the nation by bolstering democracy and sealing deeper European ties. A regular presence at the Kiev protests that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych and a minister in the past two governments, the tycoon is a pragmatist who can strike deals to ease tensions, according to Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
"Poroshenko comes across as strong, reliable and non-confrontational, a person who's able to reach compromises," she said.
The billionaire is promising to boost wages by nurturing employment and gearing the economy towards Europe through a free trade pact.
"We can't compromise with Russia on our European choice," he has said. "I will ensure immediate ratification of the association agreement with the EU."
Poroshenko is also showing off his deal-making skills in campaigning, sealing the endorsement of billionaire Dmitry Firtash, who has close ties to Russia.
The backing of Firtash, who is fighting extradition to the US from Austria on bribery charges, persuaded boxing champion Vitali Klitschko to drop out of the election, leaving Poroshenko to square off against Tymoshenko.
Poroshenko's relations with Russia have soured since he threw his weight behind Ukraine's plan to sign the EU deal rather than join a Putin-backed customs union. His Russian bank accounts were frozen and his products banned.