ALEX Salmond has defended praising "certain aspects" of Russian President Vladimir Putin's leadership, insisting his comments were "balanced and reasonable".

The First Minister hit back ­personally for the first time yesterday as the row deepened.

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Prime Minister David Cameron accused the First Minister of "a major error of judgment" while Chief ­Secretary to the Treasury Danny ­Alexander said the comments were "extraordinary and disgraceful".

Mr Salmond, who was interviewed for GQ magazine as Russia prepared to annex Crimea, praised Mr Putin for restoring "a substantial amount of Russian pride" but added he did not approve of a range of Russian actions.

His comments have been condemned by human rights group and Scots-based Ukrainians.

At the launch yesterday of the SNP's European election campaign in ­Penicuik, Midlothian, Mr Salmond rejected their calls for an apology.

He said: "People will see the comments I made are perfectly ­reasonable, that I deprecated Russian actions in Ukraine and also its human rights record.

"I pointed out that the Western press had under­estimated Putin. I think that's obviously true.

"When I was talking about the pride issue, it was in the aftermath of the Sochi Olympics, which was obviously a restoration of Russian pride. That was when the interview was conducted. These were reasonable, balanced remarks."

Mr Cameron said: "I think what Alex Salmond said was a major error of judgment.

"I think all of us in this House should be supporting the Ukrainian desire to be a sovereign, independent country and to have the respect of the international community and party leaders for that ambition."

Mr Alexander also raised questions about Mr Salmond's judgment, adding: "If Alex Salmond had been the leader of an EU member state and had made the comments they would be at odds with the views expressed by every other European government.".