ALEX Salmond's praise, albeit heavily qualified, of Russian president Vladimir Putin has left the First Minister facing further criticism and condemnation.

Foreign Secretary William Hague and Sir Menzies Campbell, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, yesterday accused him of a dreadful lapse of judgement. Labour's shadow international development secretary Jim Murphy called on him to apologise to the people of Ukraine.

More painfully for the First Minister, Amnesty International said he should not take pride in praise for Putin, a reference to his admiration, shared in an interview with Tony Blair's former spin doctor Alistair Campbell for GQ magazine, for the Russian leader restoring his country's pride.

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The First Minister rounded on his political critics as the row became increasingly bitter. His spokesman accused them of "cosying up" to Russia to persuade the country to oppose independence, following reports in the Russian press that UK diplomats were keen to lobby President Putin.

The clashes will have dismayed the First Minister, whose commitment to human rights is beyond doubt. The row is a distraction in the independence debate, overshadowing as it did Mr Salmond's keynote speech in Bruges yesterday on an independent Scotland's attitude towards and role within the EU. His address to the College of Europe contained much to consider.

His visit was billed as a charm offensive but his message, though couched in warm words, amounted to something of a challenge as he outlined three areas of EU reform which he pledged an independent Scotland to help drive forward. He called for a Europe better equipped to tackle inequality, more committed to green energy, capable of restoring faith in its institutions and more democratic in its decision-making.

He warned that EU fishing boats would be banned even from passing through Scottish territorial waters if his proposals for Scotland's membership, on similar terms to the UK, were not negotiated within an 18-month timescale. These ideas sum up Mr Salmond's case for an independent Scotland taking its place at the top table of Europe, as he calls it.

Independence would allow Scotland to pursue priorities in its national interest, such as renewable energy, with vigour, he argued, instead of being "constrained" by the UK.

The alternative, as he put it (the closure of Scottish fishing grounds if the country failed to join the EU with a good deal), he regards as less of a threat and more of a statement of the blindingly obvious.

To his opponents, his approach is naive and hectoring in equal measures. An independent Scotland, they warned, would struggle to achieve the same favourable terms as the UK. The First Minister's veiled threats, they insisted, would only make matters worse.

Frustratingly for Mr Salmond, he spoke as an academic study supported his view of diverging attitudes to the EU north and south of the Border, showing Ukip emerging as a party of Eurosceptic "English identity".

If his comments about Mr Putin sidelined important debate about independence and the EU, Mr Salmond had cause to be doubly disappointed.