NICOLA Sturgeon has come under attack on the eve of her visit to the United States from one of America’s top foreign policy analysts over her plan to hold an independence referendum next year and remove Trident from Scotland.

Michael O’Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at Brooking’s Institution in Washington DC, where the First Minister is due to speak tomorrow, said the timing for a new vote seemed “weird” given the wider geopolitical situation, pointing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

He added that by pushing Scottish independence Scots looked like “political opportunists” acting “in a slightly unfriendly way to the broader Nato good”.

The First Minister announced her visit to the United States on Europe Day last Monday as the Scottish Government unveiled its new global strategy which sets out ambitions to work with other nations to address the impact of Brexit, Covid, the climate crisis and the invasion of Ukraine.

READ MORE: How the Ukraine war will change the independence debate

Her visit comes some ten days after her party won its 11th successive election with the result expected to lead to a ramping up of preparations for a new vote on independence next year. Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly said she plans to hold a new referendum by the end of 2023.

The itinerary unveiled by the Scottish Government for the First Minister’s visit to the United States includes a “keynote speech at Brooking’s Institution focusing on Scotland’s future and the importance of European energy security”.

The Herald on Sunday approached Brooking’s Institution and asked if there is interest in the US in Scottish independence and what they thought it would mean for defence policy and Nato. It also requested an expert view from the think tank to respond to Ms Sturgeon’s plan to remove Trident from Scotland following a vote for independence.

Mr O’Hanlon emailed a response, writing: “Personally I am skeptical that this kind of disruptive idea would go over well right now, or be productive in any meaningful way. The broader world has bigger fish to fry.”

He added: “It just feels a weird moment to push this, with - sorry - much bigger issues dominating the news and the schedules of policymakers.

“If Scots push this now it feels like they are somehow being political opportunists, in a slightly unfriendly way to the broader Nato good.”

He continued: “To me it feels wrong in the timing. Nato does not have the bandwidth for this issue now. And it might appear to weaken the alliance at a time when we need to project strength and resolve.”

READ MORE: 'Scotland should become independent and join EU and Nato in wake of Ukraine war'

Pressed on what precisely he was referring to as the “disruptive idea” and asked if he meant Scottish independence or removing Trident from Scotland if Scotland became independent, he said “mostly independence”.

Asked for further explanation, he said: “It shows more centrifugal forces within Nato/Europe at a time we should be sustaining a united front and focusing on trying to end the war in Ukraine and stabilize Europe.”

The First Minister’s visit to Washington comes amid heightened fears in the west of a nuclear threat from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine and following the prospect of Finland and Sweden joining Nato in the near future.

Last week the US intelligence chief told the Senate that Russian President Vladimir Putin may resort to using nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat either to his regime or to Russia.

Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, told the armed services committee that the next phase of Russia’s invasion remained uncertain and was likely to become “more unpredictable and escalatory”.

Ms Haines told the Senate that the US did not see an “imminent” threat that Moscow would use nuclear weapons but that if Mr Putin were to believe that he was losing the war in Ukraine or that Nato was “either intervening or about to intervene in that context” he might resort to nuclear weapons.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London said Russia was Nato’s primary security concern and US policy analysts would want to know whether an independent Scotland would be “a reliable ally” and that it could take around 20 years to find a different base for Trident.

“There is an inherent tension between a position between wanting to be a full member of Nato and also wanting to remove nuclear weapons from Scottish soil on a timetable which would not make it possible for the UK to remain a nuclear power,” he said.

Earlier this month Ms Sturgeon told The Herald it was her “expectation and hope” that Trident would be removed from the Faslane naval base on the Clyde in the first Holyrood term after a Yes vote in line with SNP policy. She has also insisted her plan has not changed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Bill Ramsay, convener of SNP CND, said the party approved a policy at its conference in September last year to remove Trident in the first three years of the government of an independent Scotland.

“The motion on the Trident removal timescale was passed by over 400 votes to 14 at the SNP 2021 September conference. The fact that a deadly nuclear game of chicken is part of the Ukraine war calculus of Russia with its escalate to de-escalate plans on the one hand and others in the West who are content to get into an air war with the Russians is proof that nukes are not just a weapon of last resort,” he said.

“Quite how the removal of the four Vanguard class subs from Nato’s order of battle six years from now would materially change the military balance between the combined might of Nato with a collective GDP that is ten to twenty times that of Putin’s Russia , even before Finland and Sweden joins defies rational examination.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Parliament has a clear majority in favour of holding an independence referendum. In line with that democratic mandate, the Scottish Government has started work on a detailed prospectus for an independent Scotland. That is now underway.

“As part of this process, we intend to demonstrate how an independent Scotland will cooperate with international partners, including organisations such as Nato, who share our common values and principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

The Scottish Government's new blueprint for its international priorities said the principles of the global affairs framework would apply “regardless of Scotland’s constitutional position but clearly the contribution that Scotland could make, and the benefits it could receive, would be significantly enhanced with the powers of independence rather than devolution”.

Washington is home to one of the Scottish Government’s nine overseas offices, which cost £9 million a year.

The American office costs £794,000 for four staff. The most expensive base is in Brussels, which has 18 staff and is budgeted to cost £2.47 million next year. According to the government blueprint, this will be expanded as ministers want to “strengthen our office” near the European Parliament.

The London office has 16 staff and will cost almost £2.2 million to run this financial year. Other offices are in Beijing, Berlin, Dublin, Ottawa and Paris. A base in Copenhagen opens this year and another is planned for Warsaw. 

Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly said that she wants to hold a second independence referendum next year. The UK Government has said now is not the time for another vote and will not agree to hand powers over to the Scottish Parliament to holdd a second independence referendum.

Regardless, Scottish ministers are planning to introduce a referendum bill at Holyrood possibly in the coming weeks.

A poll by Survation, released last weekend, suggested that only 29 per cent of people backed Ms Sturgeon’s 2023 timetable and 60 per cent were opposed, including 36 per cent of those who voted SNP in last year’s Holyrood election.