A day after taking lead in Ukraine's presidential election, the former Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich, ruled out NATO membership for his country and vowed to improve ties with Russia.

Mr. Yanukovich emerged as the frontrunner in the first round of the election on Sunday contested by 18 candidates. Mr. Yanukovich captured nearly 36 per cent of the votes, with Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko coming in second with close to 25 per cent. The two will face a runoff vote on February 7. Incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko, hero of the 2004 U.S.-engineered "orange revolution," was eliminated from the race with a humiliating 5 per cent vote.

"Ukraine will never join any military bloc. This is the view of the Ukrainian people and it must be respected," Mr. Yanukovich told reporters on Monday.

Mr. Yushchenko had made NATO membership for Ukraine a top priority for his presidency.

Earlier Mr. Yanukovich indicated that if elected President he would also reverse Mr. Yushchenko's pro-Western economic policies and support joining a customs union Russia is setting up with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Russian Parliament Speaker Boris Gryzlov said his party, United Russia, welcomed Mr. Yanukovich victory.

"The incumbent suffered a crushing defeat. Yushchenko's time is up," he said. "The Ukrainian people have made it abundantly clear that anti-Russian policies have no future in Ukraine."

Pollsters said Mr. Yanukovich was likely to defeat Ms. Timoshenko in the runoff. Two opinion polls taken on Sunday showed that over 44 per cent of Ukrainian voters would support Mr. Yanukovich, while about 38 per cent would vote for Ms. Timoshenko.

More In: International | News