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.

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".

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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.".