KEV, Ukraine — Ukraine was counting down Saturday to a presidential election seen as crucial to its very survival after months of turmoil that has driven the country to the brink of civil war.
A Ukrainian anti-aircraft battery fired warning shots to prevent an incursion on Saturday by Russian helicopter gunships from the Crimea peninsula, the Ukrainian defense ministry said.
Two Mi-35 aircraft approached the boundary between mainland Ukraine and Crimea, occupied and annexed by Russia two months ago, early afternoon on Saturday, it said in a statement.
Troops stationed on Kutara Point "fired warning shots from an anti-aircraft system, forcing the provocateurs to turn back.”
The incident happened on the eve of a Ukrainian presidential election that the Kiev authorities hope will strengthen their position against Moscow, despite difficulties holding the ballot in eastern areas controlled by pro-Russian separatist rebels.
Since the Russian takeover of Crimea in March there have not been major incidents between Ukrainian and Russian troops, either around Crimea or on Ukraine's eastern borders where Russia has built up its forces close to the frontier. Dozens of people have been killed in the east in recent weeks, however, in clashes between Ukrainian security forces and militants who reject the authority of the leadership in Kiev.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk issued an appeal for people to turn out to "defend Ukraine" despite threats by the insurgents to disrupt the election in restive areas under their control.
In what could be a significant move in Ukraine's bitter confrontation with its former masters in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will respect the outcome of the vote.
Putin said Moscow wants stability.
Having annexed Crimea in March on the grounds of protecting ethnic Russians from Ukrainian "fascists", Putin said Russia wants a new constitution — something Kiev sees as a means to break the country up by handing more autonomy than it is willing to concede to Russian-speaking regions in the east.
"By all means, we will respect the choice of the Ukrainian people and will be working with authorities formed on the basis of this election," Putin told foreign journalists during an international economic forum in St. Petersburg.
Putin has in the past given only grudging backing to what Kiev and the West hope will restore stability after months of crisis sparked by the toppling of Ukraine's pro-Kremlin president in February which later saw Russia annex Crimea and pro-Moscow rebels take up arms in the industrial east.
"We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis," Putin said at an economic forum on Friday.
But he said Ukraine had descended into "chaos and full-scale civil war", accusing the United States of causing the crisis by backing the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, who fled in February after months of sometimes bloody pro-EU street protests.
The days before the election have been blighted by a resurgence in deadly fighting between the Ukraine military and rebels who have declared independence in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Seven people were killed outside Donetsk city on Friday, a day after the deaths of 19 soldiers in the heaviest loss for the Ukraine military since the conflict erupted in early April.
About 150 people have been killed in the east since then, according to an AFP tally based on U.N. and Ukrainian government figures.
Sunday's vote is seen as the most crucial since Ukraine's independence in 1991, with the country not only battling to stay united but also to stave off threatened bankruptcy and fears that Russia could cut off vital gas supplies.
Billionaire chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko is the favorite, enjoying a near 30-point lead over former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, but opinion polls say the vote is likely to go to a runoff on June 15.
The authorities are mobilizing over 75,000 police and volunteers to try to ensure security on polling day, alongside around 1,200 international observers.
"This will be the expression of the will of Ukrainians from the west, east, north and south," Yatsenyuk said in a televised address.
"I want to assure our fellow countrymen in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions who will be prevented from coming to their polling stations by the war unleashed against Ukraine that the bandits have little time left to terrorize your regions."
But voting is unlikely to take place in several places in the east, where election officials have reported numerous cases of intimidation and attacks by rebels.
In Makiivka, just to the east of Donetsk, polling station head Tetyana Fyodorovna said preparations had been halted after armed men seized the district election commission Friday.
"We were getting ready for the vote but now the elections are not going to happen here," she told AFP by telephone.
However, in another move that could ease the worst post-Cold War standoff between Moscow and the West, Putin this week ordered the withdrawal of some 40,000 troops whose presence along Ukraine's border was causing jitters particularly among former Soviet satellites.
The head of Russia's army said the pullback could take at least 20 days.
The United States responded with caution to Putin's election comments, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying: "We would welcome an indication from Russia that they would accept the results of a free and fair and democratic election in Ukraine."
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya also said Putin's words needed to be followed by "specific actions."
Washington and its European allies, which see Russia's hand directing the insurgency, have threatened more sanctions if Moscow disrupts the vote, adding to punitive measures imposed after the seizure of Crimea in March.
But Putin brushed off the threats, saying sanctions will "boomerang" on the West, and some European nations are wary of the impact further measures against Moscow could have on their own economies.
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