(Bloomberg) -- The expansion of NATO and the European Union into eastern Europe is to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to Nigel Farage, leader of the populist Reform UK party surging in the polls.

In a BBC interview Friday, Farage stood by comments he made previously pointing the finger at the West, saying “it was obvious” more eastern European countries joining the pacts would provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the statement “completely wrong,” warning on Saturday that “this kind of appeasement is dangerous for Britain’s security, the security of our allies that rely on us and only emboldens Putin further.” 

Conservative Home Secretary James Cleverly said Farage was “echoing Putin’s vile justification for the brutal invasion of Ukraine.” Speaking to broadcasters, Labour leader Keir Starmer said the comments were “disgraceful” while shadow defense secretary John Healey called Farage a “Putin apologist.”

Farage’s party has seized on anti-immigration sentiment and jumped in the polls at the expense of the ruling Conservatives ahead of the July 4 election. That is splitting the right-wing vote and surveys show Sunak’s Tories on course for a historic defeat to Starmer’s opposition Labour Party.

Farage’s comments come after a string of controversies involving Reform election candidates, including one who apologized after saying the UK should have “taken Hitler up on his offer of neutrality.”

In the BBC interview, Farage was pressed on his previous comments suggesting he admired Putin and that the West had provoked the Russian leader. 

“Why did I say that? 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, according to a transcript of the interview. 

Since the 1990s, a number of eastern European countries have joined the defense pact and the EU, including Poland and Hungary.

“I’m the only person in British politics that predicted what would happen, and of course everyone said I was a pariah for daring to suggest it,” he said.

Farage said he “disliked” Putin but repeated that he “admired him as a political operator because he’s managed to take control of running Russia.”

“We provoked this war,” Farage said. “Of course it’s his fault, he’s used what we’ve done as an excuse.”

--With assistance from Olatomiwa Babalola.

(Adds comment from Rishi Sunak in third paragraph)

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