KYIV -- The rockets came in fast and hot and without notice, unleashing a hellish fury over the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk as residents went about their afternoon business. When the attack ended minutes later, at least a dozen people were dead and dozens more were wounded.
In the immediate aftermath and under the cover of darkness, President and commander in chief Petro Poroshenko made a surprise visit to the scene. Donning military camouflage fatigues and with representatives of Western allies in tow, he gestured to the spent container of a missile stuck in the frozen ground.
"The bombs are blasting from the air, and killing the people down here," Poroshenko told those beside him in English as cameras rolled.
With repeated visits to the scene of attacks like the one in Kramatorsk in February 2015 after taking office amid the breakout of war a year earlier, Poroshenko has sought to burnish his image as a strong wartime commander in chief who has reformed the military and rebuffed an aggressive Russia since it annexed Crimea and launched its support for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
But if the results from 79 special polling stations set up for active-duty soldiers on the eastern front lines are any indication, some of the messaging might have been lost on the troops.
A nearly complete vote tally published by the Central Election Commission and analyzed by RFE/RL on April 2 showed Poroshenko receiving 12,925 (38.1 percent) of 33,859 votes from those front-line soldiers, just 591 more than the 12,334 (36.4 percent) for Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
In other words, while it beats the more-than-two-to-one advantage that political newcomer Zelenskiy enjoyed in the rest of the country, analysts suggest it was not necessarily a commanding performance for Ukraine's commander in chief.
"This means that Poroshenko is not very popular in the army, and that Ukrainians' desire for a 'new face' exists, including in the army," Volodymyr Fesenko, a Ukrainian political and security analyst who heads the Kyiv-based Penta Center, told RFE/RL.
That could bode ill for the second-round runoff between those two candidates on April 21.
Poroshenko's office declined to comment on the military vote in the east, instead referring RFE/RL to TV presenter Taras Berezovets, who works for a channel that reports favorably of the president's work, for comment. Berezovets said the first-round result was "absolutely not" a referendum on Poroshenko's role as commander in chief and chalked it up to "a lot of soldiers want[ing] the war to stop and to go home."
"Poroshenko, on the contrary, says we'll continue fighting Russia [and] that this will be a war for years," he added.
Poroshenko has tried to keep Western partners behind Ukraine diplomatically and financially while maintaining domestic support for his pro-EU and pro-NATO policies, all with Russia still in control of annexed Crimea and Ukrainian soldiers dying almost daily.
With more than 99 percent of the national vote counted by April 2, Zelenskiy, who stars in a popular sitcom about a schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president and stands up to a corrupt political elite, led with more than 30 percent compared to Poroshenko's nearly 16 percent.
The Poroshenko 'Myth'
Overwhelmingly elected president in a snap vote in May 2014, Poroshenko inherited a country mired in a Kremlin-fueled separatist uprising and deeply unprepared for war.
Across the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, weapons caches were being raided and government buildings seized. Only 6,000 Ukrainian soldiers -- one brigade -- were in a state of complete readiness and able to execute the political leadership's orders, according to Mykola Byelyeskov* (also Bielieskov), who researches the military in his role as deputy director of the Institute of World Policy in Kyiv.
On May 26, 2014, the day after Poroshenko was elected, Russia-backed forces launched an offensive on Donetsk and captured its international airport in a bloody battle that killed dozens of fighters and marked the start of full-scale hostilities that would last months.
Eventually the Ukrainian army, backed by volunteer militias, would turn the tide and hold off further advances. But it came at a significant cost.
In the August 2014 battle for Ilovaysk, hundreds of Ukrainian troops were encircled and killed after Russia-backed forces reneged on an alleged promise to provide safe passage back to their barracks.
It was a scenario that played out with similarly devastating results in Debaltseve in February 2015. There, hundreds more Ukrainian troops were killed when they were surrounded and bombarded by rockets and tank fire.
After those defeats, according to Fesenko, "there was generally great dissatisfaction with the way Poroshenko led the Armed Forces."
But the president has earned praise for his role in helping grow the Ukrainian Armed Forces into a fighting force of around 250,000 soldiers, some 204,000 of whom are professional servicemen.
And he has overseen an increase in defense spending from $1.9 billion in 2013 to $3 billion in 2018, allowing the country to purchase or modernize tanks, armored vehicles, and other materiel.
"Within a short space of time, Ukraine's army has evolved from a depleted, neglected, and underfunded force to one that has contained a Russian-backed armed rebellion in eastern Ukraine," military analyst Valeriy Akimenko wrote last year for Carnegie's Reforming Ukraine project. "The transformation has been painful and an enormous amount still needs to be done to reform the Ukrainian military, but remarkable progress has been made since 2014."
But those gains may not have been enough to earn Poroshenko broad respect from the troops under his command, critics say.
"It is a myth that Poroshenko is very popular in the army," argued Fesenko.
'Business In Blood'
Yet in the lead-up to the March 31 election, Poroshenko, who has been criticized by civil society watchdogs and Western backers for the slow pace of crucial reforms and foot-dragging when it comes to implementing anticorruption measures, played up the image of a tough commander.
"Army, language, faith" was his campaign slogan.
He described himself as the only one of the 39 candidates who was capable of defending Ukrainian statehood against a Russia that he claims is hellbent on destroying the country. He made several visits to the front lines to meet with the troops, donning a military uniform for photo ops each time.
He even went on Army FM, a radio station for the troops, where he said Russian President Vladimir Putin's comments hinting at a negotiated end to the conflict with anyone other than Poroshenko in charge were equivalent to "a seal of approval for the Ukrainian supreme commander in chief."
But he also became embroiled in a major scandal in February involving money allegedly stolen from the defense sector.
Documents uncovered by Ukrainian investigative journalists appeared to show that presidential allies, including a senior security official with the power to sign off on key military-procurement deals, had stolen millions from state defense companies during wartime. The scheme involved smuggling spare military equipment parts from Russia and then selling them to Ukrainian companies at inflated prices.
The scandal sparked protests from nationalist groups who called the scheme a "business in blood."
"Poroshenko's commander-in-chief message, even in a country at war, hasn't resonated that much," Byelyeskov told RFE/RL, referring to the president's reelection campaign.
'No One Is Born Commander In Chief'
Yet Poroshenko looks set to double down on the strategy as he goes head-to-head with Zelenskiy in over two weeks' time.
"It's hard to create a new platform in a short time," said Byelyeskov.
Poroshenko told an election-night press conference that he would be going after his opponent's inexperience, warning Ukrainians that Russia wouldn't be sending its comedians to the negotiating table.
Putin, Poroshenko said, "dreams of a soft, submissive, gentle, giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically uncertain president."
"Will we gift him this?" he added, referring to Zelenskiy.
The president also said he was ready to debate Zelenskiy, a challenge that was quickly accepted but with no date set so far.
"Poroshenko will likely look more experienced in debates on this issue" of the military if the two debate, Byelyeskov predicted. "More experienced, and a person who is not going to have to spend the first five months [of his presidency] learning about important military things."
But Byelyeskov also noted that Poroshenko was himself once a novice in military affairs.
"No one is born as a commander in chief," he said. "It is a thing that is acquired."
With Change, Perhaps Chances
Should the 41-year-old Zelenskiy win in the second round -- and polls that accurately predicted his first-round victory have suggested he might handily defeat Poroshenko once more -- he would face a steep learning curve in military and other affairs.
"He will have to learn a lot in a very short time," Byelyeskov said, adding that among other issues, "he would need to learn about the concentration of Russian forces on our border, [the Ukrainian military's] chain of command...[and] how the agencies interact."
"His enemies" -- the Russians, in particular -- "are going to look carefully at his actions as commander in chief," Byelyeskov added.
Meanwhile Fesenko said that would likely leave a great deal of responsibility on the leadership of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff of the Armed Forces.
Several Zelenskiy advisers with whom RFE/RL spoke on election night declined to name prospective cabinet members or military appointments, saying that should fall to the winning candidate. Zelenskiy has so far declined to provide names.
"There may be positive consequences" of a Zelenskiy presidency, Fesenko said, adding, "The arrival of a young commander in chief can accelerate reforms at the top of the army [structure], including the departure of old and unpopular generals and the arrival of younger ones."
*CORRECTED: This story has been amended to correct the first name of Mykola Byelyeskov. We regret the error.