Three-time Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi faced a backlash after defending Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as campaigning for the country’s general election draws to a close.
Speaking on the public broadcaster Rai’s flagship political talk show on Thursday evening, the 85-year-old politician said the Russian leader “only wanted to replace [Ukraine’s president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy with a government made up of decent people” but he had encountered “unexpected resistance” on the ground.
Berlusconi’s rightwing party Forza Italia is part of a coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy that is expected to form the government after Sunday’s election.
The comments, which come as Putin has escalated the war on Ukraine with a military draft, annexation votes in occupied regions and threats of nuclear attacks, will revive concerns in Brussels and other EU capitals that the next Italian government might be softer on the Kremlin than the one headed by Mario Draghi. In Italy, they have prompted angry reactions from the opposition and put Berlusconi’s coalition partners in a delicate position.
Italian centre-left politicians criticised Berlusconi’s words, with MEP Carlo Calenda, who leads a small liberal centrist party, calling him “subversive”.
Hard-right League leader Matteo Salvini, an ally of Berlusconi who has previously criticised the west’s sanctions against Russia, said he did not want to “interpret Berlusconi’s words but we are against the war”.
The comments are also a headache for Antonio Tajani, Berlusconi’s top lieutenant and a former European parliament president, who is thought of as a possible contender to be Italy’s next foreign minister.
Tajani, vice-president of both the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament and Berlusconi’s party, sought to distance himself from the comments, saying “the left, as usual, extrapolated a little sentence of the whole interview in which Berlusconi was reporting to the public what he had been told about Russian intentions”.
In his television interview, Berlusconi appeared sympathetic to Putin, suggesting Russia’s leader had been inadvertently ensnared in the conflict. Putin and Berlusconi have been friends for more than two decades and they have taken holidays together in Russia and Italy. Berlusconi visited Putin in Crimea in 2015 following Moscow’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.
“Putin was encouraged to launch this special operation by the Donbas separatists who went to Moscow and told him Zelenskyy had killed 16,000 people and begged him to defend them,” Berlusconi said in the interview. “The troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv in a week, replace the Zelenskyy government with decent people and a week later come back.”
Berlusconi added: “Instead they found an unexpected and incredible resistance, which was then fed by arms of all kinds from the west . . . what I don’t understand is why the Russians expanded throughout the country — I think they should have stopped around Kyiv.”
On Friday, Berlusconi issued a statement saying his comment that Russia’s president was “forced” into the conflict “had been misinterpreted — I was referring to what other people think”. Earlier this year he condemned the invasion of Ukraine, saying he was deeply “saddened and disappointed” by Putin’s actions.
However, his apparent lingering softness for Russia’s leader sits uneasily with Meloni’s staunch support for Ukraine. She has endorsed outgoing prime minister Draghi’s policy of supplying weapons to the country, and has denounced what she called Moscow’s “unacceptable attack”.
“We are on the side of international law, we are on the side of freedom 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 was launched in February.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels