Russia-Ukraine war: Vodka and letters: Berlusconi rekindles Putin bromance

 Russia-Ukraine war: Vodka and letters: Berlusconi rekindles Putin bromance

Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party, the junior partner in her right-wing coalition, is gunning for the foreign ministry, at a time when Ms Meloni and the EU have strongly backed Ukraine in Russia’s war. Some analysts suggested Mr. Berlusconi was intentionally trying to sabotage her future government.

Breaking a daylong silence, Ms Meloni insisted she will lead a government with a clear foreign policy.

“Italy, with its head held high, is part of Europe and the (NATO) Atlantic alliance,” she said. “Whoever doesn’t agree with this cornerstone cannot be part of the government, at the cost of not having a government.”

Mr Berlusconi has a long-standing friendship with Mr Putin: He has entertained the Russian leader at his villa on Sardinia and even visited Crimea with Mr Putin in 2014 after the Russian leader annexed the peninsula from Ukraine.

After releasing a first audio recording on Tuesday about Mr Berlusconi re-establishing contact with Mr Putin over gifts and “sweet” birthday notes, LaPresse on Wednesday published another recording, apparently from the same session, in which Mr Berlusconi seemingly defended Mr Putin’s decision to try to oust the Ukrainian government.

Forza Italia’s Silvio Berlusconi and incoming prime minister Giorgia Meloni at an election rally in September. AP

Mr Berlusconi spoke disparagingly of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, accusing him of provoking the conflict by increasing attacks on the eastern Donbas after 2014, when Russia-backed separatists started fighting Ukrainian troops. He said Mr Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine was supposed to have lasted just two weeks to install a “decent, sensible” government in Kyiv.

But thanks to “unexpected and unforeseen” Ukrainian resistance and funding and weapons from the West that arrived “on Day 3, a special operation that was supposed to have lasted two weeks has become a war that will last some 200-plus years,” Mr Berlusconi said.

He claimed there were no “true leaders” left in Europe or the US.

European Commission spokeswoman, Nabila Massrali, asked to respond to his comments on Wednesday, said EU nations are free to conduct bilateral contacts with Moscow while respecting the EU policy to scale down such relations “to the necessary minimum”.

“The priority of these contacts should of course convey EU positions regarding the illegitimate invasion and aggression against Ukraine and call on Russian counterparts to stop it immediately and comply with international law,” she said.

Vodka imports from Russia are banned but Ms Massrali said she would inquire whether that ban also applies to gifts.

Mr Berlusconi’s office at first tried to deny his comments about the birthday vodka. In a statement on Tuesday, his office insisted that he had not restarted relations with Mr. Putin and that Mr. Berlusconi “told an old story to lawmakers about an episode that occurred years ago.”

Hours later, after the audio was released, Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party 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,” the party said. “There are no margins of ambiguity, nor have there ever been.”

The opposition Democratic Party’s Enrico Letta, who has warned that Ms Meloni’s far-right-led coalition represents a threat to democracy, pounced on Mr Berlusconi’s comments and said they undermined the credibility of any Meloni government.

“Any government that is born in Europe today has to choose whether to be with Putin, or with Ukraine and the European Union,” Mr Letta said. “The Meloni government is being born under the worst sign of ambiguity.”


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