Ukraine`s Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich portrayed himself as a reforming democrat, but was lukewarm to NATO and the European Union, as a curious Washington sized him up for the first time, according to AFP.

Yanukovich, seen as more sympathetic to Russia than the pro-Western policies of his rival, President Viktor Yushchenko, met Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In a speech apparently designed to refashion his image in the West, where he is still seen as the villain of disputed elections and the `Orange Revolution` in 2004, Yanukovich pledged to fight for judicial reform and democracy.

"There can never be too much democracy in Ukraine, just as there can never be too much freedom," he said, but warned Ukraine would not be rushed into membership of NATO or the EU.

"A great number of our people fear that our accession to NATO" would be directed "against Russia," Yanukovich said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think-tank.

"Only one in five Ukrainians would be in favor of filing a membership application," he said, but stressed however Ukraine would continue to work closely with the Western alliance to tighten military cooperation.

"Ukraine can join NATO when it is ready, and if it needs to do so," he said.

Though Yanukovich did not get to meet Bush, and there was no press availability of his meeting with Rice, the State Department said he was not being snubbed.

"There`s no slight that`s intended and we are absolutely ready to work with him as well as his government," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

Yanukovich said that though that his country`s ultimate future lay in Europe, it would be unwise to press too hard for membership at this stage.

"We have decided to introduce a pragmatic element in our policies, we believe that pushing the membership issue and heating up the debate can only lead to stalemate," he said.

Yushchenko had pressed for EU accession talks to start in 2008 but last month the European bloc said Ukraine had not made enough reform to be a contender for membership.

In remarks which appeared especially tailored towards foreign investors, Yanukovich said he was pushing for judicial reform in Ukraine, launching a battle against corruption and pledged to develop the stock market and improve regulatory conditions.

Entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was also a key aim of his government, he said, adding that he was in favor of limiting government interference in private business.

Yanukovich will also attend an economic forum in New York during his trip and meet Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate`s Foreign Relations Committee.

Photo opportunities include visits to the New York Stock Exchange and Ground Zero -- the former site of the World Trade Center toppled in the September 11 attacks, on Wednesday.

Before travelling to Washington, Yanukovich made a quick trip to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Analysts in Kiev said that Washington initially balked at his visit and its concerns only subsided when Ukraine accelerated legislation linked to its bid to join the WTO.

The trip will give the Americans "a chance to get to know him, sound out his positions a little more clearly," said Stephen Larrabee, an analyst with the Rand Corporation think tank.

"They may have their doubts, but it is also a chance to possibly influence him, to show him he has a lot to gain by being more forthcoming with relations with the West, with the US in particular," he said.

The trip to the United States has caused plenty of controversy in Ukraine itself.

Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk, a pro-Westerner close to President Yushchenko, sought to block the visit before he was voted out of office on Friday.

Yanukovich accused Tarasyuk during his speech at CSIS of trying to score political points, and said he had failed to decide whether he wanted to be in government or opposition.