Clegg v Farage: Putin row grows ahead of second EU debate

Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg during the first of two EU debates The two men will go head-to-head again on Wednesday

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A row between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage over the record of Russian President Vladimir Putin has escalated ahead of the duo's second EU debate.

Mr Clegg said claims by the UKIP leader that Mr Putin was the foreign leader he admired most were "utterly grotesque".

Mr Farage said he respected Mr Putin as an "operator" and the way he had "played" the crisis in Syria.

The Lib Dem leader said the views were "extreme" and suggested they were caused by Mr Farage's hatred of the EU.

The two men will meet in a second head-to-head debate, to be broadcast live on the BBC, on Wednesday on the question of the UK's future in Europe.

In the first encounter, hosted by LBC radio last week, Mr Farage suggested the EU had "blood on its hands" by encouraging Ukrainians to rise up against their former pro-Russian government.

'Brilliant'

He subsequently insisted he was not endorsing what Russia had done in annexing Crimea, but was rather criticising EU leaders for "poking the Russian bear without having the means or political will to face him down".

In an as yet unpublished interview for the magazine GQ, details of which have been released, the UKIP leader was asked which world leader he most admired.

Start Quote

I just think if your hatred of all things to do with the European Union leads to such a morally perverse conclusion... it really shows quite how extreme his views have become”

End Quote Nick Clegg Lib Dem leader

He reportedly replied: "As an operator, but not as a human being, I would say Putin. The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant. Not that I approve of him politically. How many journalists in jail now?"

Russia is one of the staunchest allies of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whom the West blames for escalating the conflict in the country - which has cost more than 100,000 lives.

Moscow helped negotiate a plan requiring the Assad government to hand over all its chemical weapons although international monitors have expressed concern about the pace of progress and the regime's co-operation.

Speaking at his monthly press conference, Mr Clegg said President Putin had been "the chief sponsor and protector of one of the most brutal dictators on the face of the planet".

"I just think it is utterly grotesque that Nigel Farage apparently admires someone, Vladimir Putin... who has blocked at every single turn in the United Nations any attempt by the international community to work in concert to help the many, many millions of people who have been driven from their homes and have been brutalised, and have been tortured and have been killed".

'Perverse'

Mr Clegg said he took exception to any suggestion that events in Syria were being "played as if it's a game".

"This isn't a game. This is thousands upon thousands of people being killed and brutalised and murdered and chased from their homes who we are now taking into our country.

"I just think if your hatred of all things to do with the European Union leads to such a morally perverse conclusion - that you admire the one leader in the world who could have reined in President Assad - it really shows quite how extreme his views have become."

The UKIP leader has accused the EU of "empire building" in eastern Europe and holding out the prospect of Ukraine one day joining the 28-member union, which he believes is "entirely unrealistic".

He has also suggested the West has "stoked" the expectation of opposition forces helping to topple the Assad regime and that Libya has become "ungovernable" since the Western intervention in 2011.

Mr Farage was one of the first British politicians to call for the UK to admit refugees from the fighting in Syria, saying the UK had a moral obligation to help those left homeless by the three-year civil war.

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