Three-time Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faced a backlash after defending Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as the country’s general election campaign drew to a close.
Speaking on public broadcaster Rai’s political talk show on Thursday night, the 85-year-old politician said the Russian leader “just wanted to replace [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy with a government of decent people”, but he encountered “unexpected resistance” on the ground.
Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia party is part of a coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy and is expected to form government after Sunday’s election.
The comments, which come as Putin escalated the war on Ukraine with military service, votes for annexation in occupied regions and threats of nuclear attacks, will reignite concerns in Brussels and other EU capitals that Italy’s next government may be softer on the Kremlin could be than that directed by Mario Draghi. In Italy, they have provoked angry reactions from the opposition and put Berlusconi’s coalition partners in an awkward position.
Italian centre-left politicians have criticized Berlusconi’s words, with Carlo Calenda MEP, who leads a small liberal centrist party, calling him “subversive”.
The League’s right-wing leader Matteo Salvini, a Berlusconi ally who had previously criticized Western sanctions against Russia, said he “does not want to interpret Berlusconi’s words, but we are against the war”.
The comments have also raised concerns for Antonio Tajani, Berlusconi’s top lieutenant and former President of the European Parliament, who is said to be a possible contender for Italy’s next foreign minister.
Tajani, vice-president of both the centre-right group in the European Parliament and Berlusconi’s party, tried to distance himself from the comments, saying: “The left, as usual, extrapolated a small sentence from the entire interview in which Berlusconi reported to the public what he had been told about Russian intentions”.
In his TV interview, Berlusconi showed sympathy for Putin and implied that the Russian leader was inadvertently drawn into the conflict. Putin and Berlusconi have been friends for more than two decades and have vacationed together in Russia and Italy. Berlusconi visited Putin in Crimea in 2015 after Moscow annexed the Ukrainian peninsula.
“Putin was encouraged to start this special operation by the Donbass separatists, who went to Moscow and told him Zelenskyy had killed 16,000 people and asked him to defend them,” Berlusconi said in the interview. “The troops should march in, reach Kyiv in a week, replace the Zelenskyi government with decent people and come back a week later.”
Berlusconi added: “Instead they found an unexpected and incredible resistance, which was then fed with weapons of all kinds from the West. . . What I don’t understand is why the Russians were expanding across the country – I think they should have stopped around Kyiv.”
On Friday, Berlusconi issued a statement saying his remark that the Russian president had been “forced” into the conflict had been “misinterpreted – I was referring to what other people are thinking”. Earlier this year he condemned the invasion of Ukraine and said he was deeply “sad and disappointed” by Putin’s actions.
However, his apparent continued indulgence towards the Russian leader stands in an uneasy proportion to Meloni’s steadfast support for Ukraine. She has supported outgoing Prime Minister Draghi’s policy of supplying arms to the country and denounced what she called “Russia’s unacceptable attack”.
“We are on the side of international law, we are on the side of liberty, and we are on the side of a proud nation that is teaching the world what it means to fight for freedom,” Meloni told American conservatives days after the Invasion launched in February.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels