A tough one for Team Salmond

Image copyright Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Image caption Alex Salmond's colleagues had a grim demeanour during first minister's questions

It was not, all in all, the first minister's finest half hour.

He faced sustained and concerted criticism from his three principal opponents with regard to his comments about President Putin.

Team Salmond know it was a tough one. You only had to look at the grim demeanour of Alex Salmond's closest colleagues to gauge that.

Equally, though, the first minister is said to be sanguine about the controversy, believing that it will blow over as the focus returns to domestic politics.

To recap, Alex Salmond said in an interview, published today by GQ magazine, that he admired "certain aspects" of the Russian leader's behaviour in office.

To be clear, Mr Salmond deprecated others.

The interview was conducted on 14 March - before the annexation of Crimea but, say critics, while the crisis in Ukraine was developing.

Strong protest

The comments drew a strong protest from a representative of the Ukrainian community in Scotland.

Which brings us to today. Labour's Johann Lamont said he had damaged the reputation of Scotland. For the Conservatives, Ruth Davidson said his judgement had been poor. Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats reckoned the first minister looked "small."

In response, Mr Salmond said that his opponents had been seemingly silent on the issue of Ukraine while his government had been voicing concern and, separately, contesting Russia's record on human rights, including the treatment of homosexuals.

The first minister tried other tacks to deflect criticism. He questioned the pedigree of a substantial donation made to the pro-Union group, Better Together.

He said Ukrainians had been upset over suggestions by Labour peer Lord Robertson that there should be closer links between Nato and Russia.

But Mr Salmond's main argument was that his qualified praise for Putin was being overstated - while his condemnation of Russian actions was being neglected.

'Russian pride'

Still, it was a tough encounter. Mr Salmond said President Putin had, to some extent, restored Russian pride. That, said Johann Lamont, was precisely the response President Putin attributed to the annexation of Crimea.

Did Alex Salmond not understand how his words would be interpreted? Were they not a gift to the Russian president?

No, said the first minister. His comments about Russian pride had been made solely in the context of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

By contrast, he listed actions his government had taken to voice opposition to Russian actions in Ukraine, including issuing statements and withdrawing an invitation to the Russian Consul General in Edinburgh.

The original interview was conducted by Alastair Campbell, formerly media adviser to Tony Blair.

Yes, the same Alastair Campbell who blogged with regard to the launch of the Scottish government's independence White Paper last year: "If only Smart Alec Salmond could have brought himself to say 'don't know' to some of the questions."