Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of provoking large-scale post-election protests in Russia even as tens of thousands pledged to attend fresh protest rallies on Saturday.

Referring to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's criticism of the Russian parliamentary election as “neither free nor fair”, Mr. Putin said it “sent a signal” to the opposition to launch protests.

“They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department started active work,” Mr. Putin said on Thursday in his first comments on rallies against alleged mass fraud in Sunday's election to the State Duma.

Mr. Putin's United Russia won almost 50 per cent of the votes, but independent monitors and opposition leaders said the result was inflated by more than 20 per cent through vote rigging. The last Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, on Wednesday demanded cancellation of the “fraudulent” election.

Mr. Putin accused the West of funding Russian non-government organisations to the tune of “hundreds of millions of dollars” with the aim of influencing political processes and elections in Russia.

“This is unacceptable,” he told a meeting of supporters to discuss campaign strategy for the March 2012 presidential election.

“We must shield ourselves from interference in our internal affairs and defend our sovereignty,” Mr. Putin said promising harsher punishment for those acting on orders from foreign states.

Thousands have taken to the streets in Russia to protest ballot box stuffing and manipulation of the vote count. More than a thousand demonstrators have been arrested, but about 35,000 people have signed up via Facebook and other social networks for new protest rallies on Saturday near the Kremlin in Moscow and in many other cities.

More In: International | News