Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sparked controversy this week when audio released by Italian news agency LaPresse revealed the 86-year-old speaking about his “re-established” relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Berlusconi says in the audio that Putin sent him 20 bottles of vodka and a “very sweet letter” on his birthday last month.
His office confirmed with CNN on Thursday that the clips were authentic – apparently having been secretly recorded during a meeting of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party in the parliamentary chamber on Tuesday.
“I sent him bottles of Lambrusco (Italian sparkling wine) and an equally sweet letter,” Berlusconi says in the LaPresse audio clip.
He also says he had “re-established relations with President Putin” and goes on to boast that the Russian leader called him “the first of his five true friends.”
A party spokesperson denied Berlusconi was in touch with Putin, saying the former prime minister had been telling parliamentarians “an old story referring to an episode many years ago.”
However, in the LaPresse audio, Berlusconi can be heard saying Putin “was against any initiative” for war against Ukraine.
The comments have raised eyebrows among Ukraine watchers as Berlusconi is expected to be part of Italy’s incoming coalition government led by the ultra-conservative Giorgia Meloni – who has been steadfast in her support for Ukraine.
‘I don’t deny my past friendship ‘
Berlusconi is also heard in the audio clip talking to members of his party and appearing to blame Ukraine for Russia’s invasion: “In 2014 in Minsk, Belarus, an agreement was signed between Ukraine and the two newly formed republics of Donbas, a peace agreement that no one attacks each other,” he says. “Ukraine throws this treaty to hell a year later and begins attacking the borders of the two republics. Both republics suffered losses among the military.”
The Ukrainian government in Kyiv asserts the two breakaway regions are, in effect, temporarily Russian-occupied. The self-declared republics are not recognized by any international government, other than Russia and some of its allies.
“Desperate, the two republics… sent a delegation to Moscow… and finally managed to talk to Putin. They say: ‘Vladimir, we don’t know what to do, you (have to) defend us,’” Berlusconi says in the audio.
“(Putin) opposes any initiative (to attack Ukraine), he resists. (After) facing strong pressure from all over Russia, he decided to invent a special operation: the (Russian) troops enter Ukraine, reach Kyiv in a week, overthrow the government in office, (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky, etc., and set up a government already chosen by the Ukrainian minority of good and commonsense people, and a week for the troops to return back to Russia.”
In the recording Berlusconi can then be heard saying: “He (Putin) entered Ukraine and found himself faced with an unexpected and unpredictable situation of resistance from the Ukrainians, who began receiving money and weapons from the West on the third day (of the war.) And the war, instead of being a two-week operation, has become a two-century war. So, this is the situation of the war in Ukraine.”
He also doubts “Putin and Zelensky can sit at a mediation table. Because there is no possible way,” according to the LaPresse audio.
Berlusconi defended his comments in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Thursday.
“Everything was taken out of context. It was circulated without knowing the global meaning of my words. With the only scope to spread disinformation and lies,” he said.
“I don’t deny my past friendship with Vladimir Putin, that brought important results, which were achieved in full accord with our Western allies… But today the circumstances have changed.”