Image Source : REUTERS Nigel Farage, leader of Reform UK party

London: Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain’s right-wing party Reform UK, has blamed the eastward expansion of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The remarks were made late Friday and drew strong criticism across the British political spectrum ahead of the July 4 elections where Farage’s party is predicted to win millions of votes.

Farage said he stood by comments made shortly after Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, when he posted on social media that the move was a “consequence of EU and NATO expansion”. He said he had been predicting a war in Ukraine as early as 2014. “It was obvious to me that the ever-eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union was giving this man a reason to his Russian people to say, ‘They’re coming for us again’ and to go to war,” he said in an interview with BBC.

“We provoked this war … of course it’s his (Putin’s) fault – he’s used what we’ve done as an excuse,” he added. Farage also said he “admired” the Russian President as a “political operator” due to his control in Russia. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the UK have long accused Farage of being an apologist for the Russian president.

Farage’s remarks met with widespread criticism

Farage’s critics from across the political spectrum slammed his statement. British PM Rishi Sunak said Farage was “completely wrong”, accusing him of appeasement that put Britain and its allies’ security at risk, according to the Guardian. “What he said was completely wrong and only plays into (Vladimir) Putin’s hands,” Sunak said during an election campaign visit.

“This is a man who deployed nerve agents on the streets of Britain, who’s doing deals with countries like North Korea. And this kind of appeasement is dangerous for Britain’s security, the security of our allies that rely on us and only emboldens Putin further,” he added. James Cleverly, the home secretary, also criticised Farage’s comments, saying he was “echoing Putin’s vile justification for the brutal invasion of Ukraine”

Former Conservative Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Farage was voicing sympathy for someone who had “deployed nerve agents on the streets of Britain”. “I think Nigel Farage is a bit like that pub bore we have all met at the end of the bar who often says if I was running the country’ and presents very simplistic answers to actually, I am afraid in the 21st century, complex problems,” he said.

Farage cuts in Rishi Sunak’s electoral prospects

Many Conservatives have largely held back from overly criticising Farage, whose decades of campaigning against Britain’s membership of the EU and mass immigration made him one of the country’s most recognise politicians and highly influential during the ‘Brexit’ movement in 2016. His surprise entry into the election race has further hit Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s hopes of closing the centre-left Labour Party’s opinion poll lead.

Even though Reform is unlikely to win many seats in parliament, it could split the right-of-centre vote across the country. The party held only one seat in the last parliament, which it gained when a Conservative lawmaker defected. Farage said in early June he would lead the party and contest the seat in Clacton in southeast England.

Meanwhile, John Healey, who is set to become defence secretary if the left-of-centre Labour Party wins the election in July, called the comments “disgraceful” and said  Farage would “rather lick Vladimir Putin’s boots than stand up for the people of Ukraine.”

(with inputs from agencies)

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