Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday launched an uphill battle for re-election, after five years in power marked by confrontation with Russia.
Opinion polls put him behind ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who rose to international prominence in 2004 during the anti-corruption Orange Revolution demonstrations and announced her own run last week.
"This feeling of deep responsibility towards my country... prompted me to decide to run again for the office of president of Ukraine," Poroshenko told a rally in Kiev ahead of the March 31 poll.
Poroshenko asked voters for a mandate to "guarantee the process of European and Atlantic integration, to guarantee our independence, to renew the territorial integrity of Ukraine".
During a roughly 40-minute long speech he repeated calls for Ukraine to seek full membership of NATO and the European Union. Poroshenko's years in power have seen Kiev seek closer ties with the West as war rumbles on in eastern Ukraine against Russia-backed separatists.
Addressing roughly 1,000 people at the gathering of supporters, the Ukrainian president stressed the need for peace with Ukraine's powerful neighbour.
But the event at times took a combative tone, with huge screens blazing the slogan "Either Poroshenko or Putin" accompanied by pictures of the Ukrainian and Russian leaders.
Poroshenko said earlier this month that Russia would seek to interfere in Ukraine's election to destabilise the situation in the country.
Critics accuse him of not doing enough to tackle corruption, but on Tuesday he insisted the worst of the country's economic struggle was behind it, adding: "I hear a lot of harsh criticisms and I take that on board." In third place in opinion polls is Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who once played the role of president in a Ukrainian TV series but has no political experience.
No candidate has an unassailable lead, with Tymoshenko, Poroshenko and Zelensky polling on roughly 16, 14 and nine per cent respectively.
Poroshenko was elected in 2014 after his pro-Russian predecessor Viktor Yanukovych was ousted following a wave of popular protests.
The 53-year-old chocolate tycoon promised to pivot the ex-Soviet country of nearly 45 million people towards Europe and has sought to push through ambitious reforms.
But critics say graft is still rampant and Poroshenko has done little to rein in fellow oligarchs, even if the economy is showing signs of recovery following a recession.
Kiev's relationship with Moscow remains in dire straits. After the 2014 uprising, Moscow annexed Crimea and supported Russian-speaking separatists in the industrial east, in a conflict that according to the United Nations had killed 12,800 to 13,000 people as of the end of last year.
The war has been a huge burden for Ukraine's economy, with Poroshenko forced to rely on assistance from the West. In December the International Monetary Fund confirmed it would give Kiev a USD 4 billion, 14-month loan.
Poroshenko's low popularity ratings received a boost after he oversaw the creation of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Moscow. His standing also increased after Russia seized three of Kiev's navy vessels and two dozen sailors as they tried to pass from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov in November.
Russia's Putin accused Poroshenko of provoking the naval crisis in a bid to increase his popularity ahead of the vote.
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