THE Russian President Vladimir Putin would be "delighted" for an independence referendum to be held in Scotland next year, according to a leading defence analyst.

Dr Jonathan Eyal, of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, dismissed an SNP argument that pausing the vote because of the war in Ukraine would be "grist to the Kremlin's mill".

The SNP MSP Rona Mackay made the claim as she responded to a poll published last week which found 59 per cent of Scots thought discussions should be suspended on Indyref2 because of the conflict.

Mr Eyal said an independence vote next year would be "exactly" what Mr Putin, pictured below, would want as it would distract the UK Government's attention from foreign policy issues.

The Herald:

"The SNP appear to be saying that not holding the referendum would be a gift to Putin. This is so bizarre. It is exactly the opposite - namely holding the referendum would be exactly what Putin would want," he said.

"The reality is, is that Putin would be delighted by the UK being absorbed in a debate about Scottish independence or by the UK being involved in a discussion about dividing the assets of the United Kingdom as a result of a Yes vote to independence."

He added: "Putin is not terribly interested in Scotland one way or the other. I can assure you he doesn't go to bed at night thinking of Scotland. But anything that creates troubles, anything that paralyzes western countries works to his advantage.

"Anything that weakens or breaks up the United Kingdom would be considered to be to Putin's advantage. The truth is that Putin would be delighted by any breakdown of the United Kingdom. It would make the UK weaker, it would involve internal debate and it would improve his chances in Europe."

The Herald:

SNP MSP Rona Mackay a pause to indyref2 would be 'grist to the Kremlin's mill'.

Meanwhile, as the war raged on Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov said Russia is committing a “real act of genocide” against the besieged city of Mariupol, where for three weeks 400,000 citizens have been surrounded, "without food, water, light, air”.

He said several small cities in Ukraine had been “wiped off the face of the Earth”.

Mr Reznikov added that Mariupol was shelled by a Russian warship on Sunday and troops had deliberately dropped bombs on a hospital with a maternity ward and a drama theatre where women and children were sheltering.

READ MORE: Ukraine: Nicola Sturgeon 'virtue signalling' with no-fly zone remark, expert claims

In other key developments in the war yesterday:

•Russian troops need another week to take Mariupol, the Kremlin-backed Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin said.

•Thousands of Mariupol residents have been “abducted” from their homes in the city and forcibly relocated to Russia, Ukrainian officials said.

•Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, called Moscow’s assault on Mariupol “a massive war crime”. The bloc is considering further sanctions on Russia in response.

•Ukrainian officials defiantly rejected a Russian demand that their forces in Mariupol lay down arms and raise white flags in exchange for safe passage out of the besieged strategic port city.

Even as Russia intensified its attempts to bombard Mariupol into surrender, its offensive in other parts of Ukraine has floundered. Western governments and analysts see the broader conflict grinding into a war of attrition, with Russia continuing to barrage cities.

With defence experts uncertain how long the war will last, Mr Eyal, associate director (strategic research partnerships at RUSI, warned the Russian President would seek to use the Scottish  independence movement for his own ends by planting false stories. He said after the 2014 referendum Russian media outlets circulated stories that the outcome was rigged.

"There is plenty of evidence of Russian mischief making, and that launching stories and conspiracy theories is one of Putin's specialities. I fully expect Putin to launch conspiracy theories," he added.

The Herald asked Mr Eyal if Putin also supported Brexit. He said the Russian President had never expressed strong views about the UK leaving the EU, before he added: "The rumours about Russian interference in the referendum about Brexit have not been substantiated. But yes, broadly speaking he is delighted with anything that cracks open western institutions and makes us appear weaker or at least absorbed in our own problems.

"I am convinced one of the reasons why he decided to strike now [against Ukraine] was because of the feeling that with the pandemic the west was too obsessed with their internal economic disorders and other difficulties and would therefore not lift a finger if he attacked. He was fundamentally wrong."

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly said she intends to hold another independence referendum by the midway point in this Holyrood term — although the UK Government is against that plan.

She said last week she intended to keep to her timetable despite the war in Ukraine after Ian Blackford, the SNP's Westminster leader, appeared to back a potential Indyref2 pause.

But on Sunday he said the war in Ukraine should not lead to plans for the referendum being pushed back.

Speaking on BBC Scotland’s Sunday Show, he said: “Is anybody suggesting that Putin should determine the timeline for an independence referendum in Scotland?”

The SNP MP pointed out his party had fought last year’s Scottish Parliament election on a manifesto that included a commitment to holding a second vote on independence.

He said: “We fought an election last year, which the SNP won, we now have an agreement with the Greens. There’s a majority for independence.”

His comment came as a former senior member of SNP staff said it was “unlikely” that a ballot on Scotland’s future in the UK will take place within Ms Sturgeon’s preferred time frame.

Kevin Pringle, who was a special adviser to Alex Salmond, the former First Minister, said a fresh vote by the end of next year was “unlikely . . . given the hurdles to be overcome”. Writing in The Sunday Times, Pringle said: “I don’t think the war in Ukraine has changed this, in the sense that it was no more likely before the Russian invasion and all the destruction and instability being wreaked.”

The SNP was approached to respond to Mr Eyal's intervention.