Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi has been caught boasting that he recently reconnected with Vladimir Putin after the pair exchanged gifts of vodka, wine and a “sweet” letter for the Russian leader’s recent birthday.
The former Italian premier revealed the inner details of his social calender to his centre-right Forza Italia MPs during a meeting this week in the lower Chamber of Deputies.
“I have reconnected with President Putin,” Italy’s LaPresse news agency reported the 86-year-old as saying.
“He sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a really sweet letter for my birthday. I responded with 20 bottles of Lambrusco (a sparkling Italian red wine) and a similarly sweet letter.”
The comments made front-page news as Italy’s hard-right conservative coalition is delegating Cabinet posts before formal consultations this week to form a new government.
They present a potential headache for countries in the West over sharing intelligence about the UKraine war with Rome as Berlsuconi’s party is expected to have seats in the new government being formed and was part of the winning coalition at the recent election.
The country’s recent elections was won by Giorgia Meloni, who has strongly backed Ukraine in Russia‘s war.
But in the audiotape, Berlusconi seemed to defend Moscow’s position in the war, relaying to his lawmakers that Russian officials have repeatedly said the West is at war with Russia “because we’re giving Ukraine weapons and financing.”
It’s not the first time Berlusconi has seemingly defended Putin. Late in the campaign, he seemed to justify Russia‘s invasion by saying Putin was forced into it by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
“The troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv within a week, replace (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky’s government with decent people and then leave,” Berlusconi told his favourite late-night talk show host in September. Later he backtracked, saying his words had been “oversimplified”.
Berlusconi’s office similarly tried to deny his audiotape comments about the birthday vodka. In a statement on Tuesday, his office insisted that he hadn’t restarted relations with Putin and that Berlusconi “told an old story to lawmakers about a episode that occurred years ago”.
Hours later, Forza Italia then tried to distance itself from the comments.
“The position of Forza Italia and President Silvio Berlusconi with respect to the Ukrainian conflict and Russian responsibilities is known to all and is in line with the position of Europe and the United States, reaffirmed on several public occasions,” the party said in a statement. “There are no margins of ambiguity, nor have there ever been.”
He and Putin have been close friends in the past, with the Italian once describing the Russian as being like a younger brother.
In 2015, he claimed Putin was “undoubtedly the No 1 among world leaders”.
However, earlier this year, Berlusconi said he was “deeply disappointed and saddened” by Putin’s actions.Berlusconi’s latest comments are likely to complicate relations with Meloni, who is expected to become Italy’s next premier, and despite suspicions of her as far-right, has so far unwaveringly supported Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky.
A change in attitude towards Russia driven by Berlusconi would be a complete U-turn from Italy’s previous isolation towards Putin, with the previous prime minister Mario Draghi being a staunch supporter of Western sanctions against Moscow.