Russia, said Winston Churchill, is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

As Alex Salmond has learned this week, it's also a gaffe at the bottom of an elephant trap covered in banana skins.

Since the First Minister voiced his qualified admiration for shirtless Soviet strongman Vladimir Putin, his opponents have made hay with accusations of insensitivity and bad judgement.

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What about the intolerance of gay rights? What about Ukraine? What about the Crimea? Did Florence Nightingale fight that shark in vain?

But Mr Salmond's always creaky knowledge of world affairs ("It's flat, right?") is now under the spotlight like never before.

And his opponents all know there's only one thing to do with a weak spot - batter it.

First to get pummelling at First Minister's Questions, smile as cold as Siberia, Johann Lamont read out Amnesty International's charge sheet against Putin, including criminalising homosexuality, crackdowns on dissent, arbitrary arrests and a corrupt judicial process.

Would the FM withdraw his "ill-judged comments and apologise to the people of Scotland and to the people of Ukraine?" asked the Labour leader.


He should have stopped there, but instead Mr Salmond made the kind of ropey retrospective defence that would have made Just William blush.

It turns out that when he said he admired "certain aspects" of Mr Putin, all he'd had in mind was the Sochi Winter Olympics.

It wasn't Vlad in the saddle with his pecs out, or the limitless power, or putting the West in a headlock, it was the luge, curling and the snowboard halfpiece the FM was talking about.

This is what we in the trade call utter pants.

But Mr Salmond insisted: "I make it absolutely clear that when I expressed my view about the restoration of Russian pride, I was referring to the Olympics and Paralympics."

Not only that, he added, the Scottish Government had given the Russian consul general some jolly stiff letters and a pretty savage finger-wagging lately about gay rights and the Ukraine to show it didn't approve of everything Russia did.

Why, we even "withdrew the invitation to the consular corps dinner". So no Ferrero Rocher for you, Boris.

"On the Sochi Olympics, I think the protestors who were beaten with horse-whips there might have a different view," snarled Ms Lamont.

To the writhing discomfort of SNP MSPs, she then read at length from a letter by Michael Ostapko, of Scotland's Ukranian community, describing its "hurt, disgust, betrayal and astonishment".

Mr Salmond lunged for his "Break Glass in Case of Kicking and Blame the Union" panel.

Mr Ostapko's letter, he observed randomly, hadn't mentioned Better Together taking £500,000 from a man whose company "is engaged in a business relationship, including a loan of $10bn, with Rosneft, whose boss Igor Sechin is on the banned list of the American government".

Slack-jawed, Ms Lamont channelled her backbenchers' noisy contempt. "Only if the SNP could that be regarded as an appropriate answer to a serious question."

Next, Tory Ruth Davidson marched on Salmondgrad. "This is a question of judgment," she said.

"We see a leader who continues to make poorly timed and badly judged interventions on foreign affairs. How can we trust the First minister to represent Scotland on the global stage when he so consistently gets it wrong?"

It was all too much for the hyperactive Kenny Gibson, the SNP's one-man Molotov cocktail. "Your party supported the Khmer Rouge and Pinochet," he exploded with a yelp.

His face betraying mounting anger, the FM then lashed out at opposition parties with nothing to say about Ukraine "until they sensed a political opportunity", but still they came at him.

Last in the troika, LibDem Willie Rennie said Putin had "lapped up the praise" while the FM had only diminished himself.

"The First Minister wants us to stand tall in the world, but does he not just look small?"

He didn't look small, just scarlet, as he again dragged Better Together into the mix, before attacking the LibDem Scottish Secretary for covering up cosy UK-Russian relations.

His own troops loved it, others not at all. This red Salmond is clearly an acquired taste.