DAVOS (AFP) - Kiev's leadership and Western supporters expressed fears over Russian interference in Ukrainian elections this year, at a conference on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday (Jan 24).
The spectre of a populist candidate winning the presidential vote at the end of March also figured in discussion between current and former top diplomats at the elite global event.
"For Russia, this election is a final chance to get its revenge," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told AFP following the "Ukrainian Breakfast" event.
"There is a big risk that Russia will use the experience it has gathered by interfering in foreign elections the world over to attempt to undermine the vote and destabilise the situation," he told journalists.
The election comes with relations between Kiev and Moscow in tatters.
Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014 and supported an uprising by Russian-speaking separatists in the east of the former Soviet country.
The conflict there has since claimed more than 10,000 lives.
Russia denies claims it is funnelling troops and arms across the border to fuel the conflict, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
'BIGGER THAN JUST UKRAINE'
Former US secretary of state John Kerry, also at the Davos event, said "this election in many ways is much bigger than just Ukraine".
He said the vote would be of importance to anyone who supported free elections without interference "by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, by Russia or any outside forces".
"I hope everybody will do their fair share to contribute to the ability of the people of Ukraine to be able to make their choice," he said.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ukraine had been used as a "laboratory" to test methods for interference then used elsewhere.
"By working with Ukraine on helping Ukraine to have free and fair election, we're helping ourselves," she said.
The Kremlin has long denied any interference in other countries' domestic affairs.
Mr Putin has accused Mr Poroshenko of using tensions with Russia to boost his popularity ahead of the presidential election.
Mr Poroshenko, who was elected in 2014 after a popular protest movement led to the ouster of his pro-Russian predecessor, is facing an uphill battle in his likely bid for re-election.
In polls, he is currently behind former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who rose to international prominence in 2004 during the anti-corruption Orange Revolution protests.
Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt said that populist policies such as slashing gas prices, as proposed by Ms Tymoshenko and other candidates, were "irresponsible".
"I am afraid that there will be populist policies that will derail the progress that Ukraine has done," he told AFP.
The country is seeing some growth following unpopular measures to rescue an economy in freefall following the annexation of Crimea.
The war in the east has been a huge burden for the country's struggling economy, with Mr Poroshenko forced to rely on assistance from the West.
"If you look at where Ukraine was in 2014, it's quite a remarkable progress that has been done. But it needs to be continued," Mr Bildt added.
Mr Poroshenko, who has yet to officially announce his candidacy, at Davos compared Ms Tymoshenko to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose country is in long-term economic crisis.
"A Maduro style of governing produces a Maduro style of results," he said in reference to his rival, who was also at the event.
"I think he should compare himself to Maduro," said Ms Tymoshenko, who accused Mr Poroshenko of failing to fulfil previous campaign promises to take a zero-tolerance approach to corruption.
The conference was organised by the Foundation of the Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, one of the country's richest men.