A LEADING defence expert has accused Nicola Sturgeon of "virtue signalling" over "irresponsible" calls that Nato should consider imposing a no fly zone over Ukraine.

The First Minister last week repeated a request made earlier this month that the west should not rule out the move and launched an attack on Alister Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland, saying he was patronising her as a woman when he criticised her intervention.

Now Jonathan Eyal, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has rounded on Ms Sturgeon describing her comments as a ploy to make her look virtuous while actually putting forward an "irresponsible" position which would lead the UK being directly engaged in a war with Russia - a nuclear power.

"A mistake doesn't get any better by being repeated," he told The Herald when asked about the First Minister's calls for a no fly zone to be considered.

"The First Minister is very entitled to make that point but she should then tell the people of Scotland that we may be engaged in a war with a nuclear power."

He said: "I think it is virtue signalling. It is 'let's do something'. If she was to suggest an increase in defence supplies to the Ukrainian military, I would accept it entirely. If she was to praise a lot of Scottish charities helping hospitals in Ukraine, I would agree entirely.

"If she was to suggest that we offer more money to the Ukrainian government to help with future reconstruction that would be very logical. But virtue signalling on the issue of a no fly zone which is ultimately deadly serious because it involves a potential confrontation with a nuclear armed Russia does not seem to me to be in that category of responsibility.

"Politicians really need to exercise a sense of responsibility when they call for these actions. We are having a real war in Europe. This is no longer a theoretical debate about where we want to go on the continent. To suggest the imposition of a no fly zone over Ukraine is a perfectly legitimate argument provided one says that as a result we may get involved in a confrontation with a nuclear power - Russia - and that we are confident in doing that because we also have nuclear weapons."

Mr Eyal, who is associate director (strategic research partnerships) at RUSI, challenged the First Minister and SNP leader on her party's policy to scrap nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland.

He said her position appeared to be that while she was calling for a no fly zone to be considered over Ukraine, she supported a policy that would lead to the UK engaging directly in the war with a nuclear power but without nuclear weapons of its own.

"The only way a no fly zone would make sense is if we were able to say that Russia would not retaliate against us because it knows we've got nuclear weapons," said Mr Eyal.

"So in effect what the First Minister is saying is that she believes that Britain's nuclear deterrent is going to allow us a lot of freedom of manoeuvre in confronting Russia. That's fine but it doesn't somehow square with her own party's manifesto."

In an interview with ITV Border on March 10, Ms Sturgeon said that “the West has to keep its mind open to every way in which Ukraine can be helped".

“I understand and I share the concerns about a direct military confrontation between Russia and Nato that a no-fly zone may lead to. Nobody wants to see an escalation of that nature.

“But on the other hand, Putin is not acting in any way rationally or defensibly. We have a situation right now where perhaps the only thing nuclear weapons are deterring is the ability to properly and directly help Ukraine.

“All of these things must be considered on a daily basis right now because the world cannot stand by and watch Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty be extinguished – that would be morally wrong from Ukraine’s perspective, but the implications of that for the rest of us in terms of the values we hold dear would be severe too.”

Asked about Mr Jack’s comments last week, the First Minister defended her original comments saying there were others “within defence and security and intelligence circles” making the same point that she was.

She added: “Which is that Nato and the world, the democratic world generally, should not necessarily be writing Vladimir Putin blank cheques of assurance and giving him a sense that he can act with impunity, and there's no military consequences.

“That's not advocating a particular course of action, as I said very clearly last week, there are very good reasons why the war should not be escalated into a direct confrontation between Russia and Nato and I think the judgments around that are the right ones at this stage.

“But in a situation like this, which is deteriorating, rapidly deteriorating, with the death and destruction that is being visited upon Ukraine by a war criminal, and that's what Vladimir Putin is, there's no doubt about that, then I think there should be some uncertainty in his mind about what the consequences for his atrocious actions might be."