Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, on Wednesday said Washington did not accept the Ukrainian presidential election result, but White House officials also signalled that they wanted to avoid a public clash with Russia over the issue.

Mr Powell spoke shortly after election officials in Ukraine had declared that Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovich had won the disputed presidential election against opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

?If the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly there will be consequences for our relationship,? Mr Powell said.

Relations between President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin have already come under strain from what the US perceives as Kremlin efforts to stifle Russian democracy and project Russian power beyond its borders.

?This is about democracy and authoritarianism,? said Daniel Fried, a senior White House official. ?It's not for us to make this an East-West issue. We are not going to make this about Russia or other countries.?

Mr Fried, senior director for European and Eurasian Affairs in the National Security Council, urged Mr Kuchma to play a ?statesmanlike role?. He repeated US demands the election result not be certified before investigations into allegations of widespread abuse, and that the authorities not use force against opposition demonstrators.

Speaking at a conference organised by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Mr Fried hinted at retaliatory measures if Viktor Yanukovich, the prime minister who was openly endorsed by Mr Putin, were declared the winner without due investigation.

Several hours after his comments, Ukraine's election commission proclaimed Mr Yanukovich the victor.

Mr Fried said neither the US nor Europe, which had been coordinating their response, would give up their ?solidarity? with the Ukrainian people. The US would also consider steps involving the Ukrainian government, individuals, civil society and democratic forces. He did not elaborate.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US national security adviser, said the stakes were high and that the US could not separate Ukraine from its relations with Russia.

?If Ukrainian democracy fails then Russian imperial visions are rewarded,? he said. Russia had to be told ?baldly? but in private that it could not have a ?free ride? in Ukraine, he said.

Analysts said the US could put pressure on Mr Putin by warning him in private that a violent outcome in Ukraine with Russian involvement would result in Russia's expulsion from the G-8 and the blocking of its aspirations to join the World Trade Organisation. But they also doubted the US would risk its close security relationship with Russia.

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