Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi told lawmakers that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin into an endless war, according to audio obtained by an Italian newswire, despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary.
The recording sheds further light on the pressures to soften Italy’s stance toward Russia in the right-wing coalition that won elections on September 25. Its publication follows that of another recording, apparently from the same meeting with lawmakers, where Berlusconi recounted how he had revived ties with Putin.
The remarks come while right-wing leader Giorgia Meloni is struggling to agree on cabinet posts with Berlusconi and other allies. She has vowed not to change Italy’s pro-Ukraine stance and said she supports sending weapons and aid to Ukraine.
In a statement on Wednesday commenting on Berlusconi’s remarks, Meloni said she won’t accept any ambiguity on foreign policy if she becomes prime minister.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February after having previously built up a military presence on the Ukraine border, thus escalating tensions with its neighbor. To justify the invasion, Putin accused Ukraine’s government of “genocide against ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers in the Donbas,” an unfounded allegation wholly rejected by Ukraine as well as the US and EU states.
In the audio, which was published by the LaPresse newswire on Wednesday, Berlusconi, 86, can be heard saying that Putin did not want to go to war but was pushed to do so because of Ukraine’s continued attacks against Russian-backed separatists in Donbas.
After his election, Zelenskyy “tripled the attacks against the breakaway republics,” according to Berlusconi, and Putin intervened to replace him with a government “already formed by a Ukrainian minority, formed by honest, sensible people.”
“He entered Ukraine and found a situation he could not have predicted, of resistance from the Ukrainians who started receiving money and arms from the West on day three,” Berlusconi said. “So instead of being a two-week operation the war became a 200-year plus struggle.”
In the first audio, published on Tuesday, Berlusconi had expressed concern about Italy’s aid to Ukraine and said Putin sent him vodka and a letter for his birthday. On the same day, in remarks broadcast on national television, Chamber of Deputies speaker Lorenzo Fontana, known for his pro-Putin views, said sanctions against Russia could “boomerang.”
A commitment to Europe and to western partners including the US has always been “at the base of my work as a political leader and a man of government, Berlusconi said in a statement late Wednesday, claiming his comments had been taken out of context.
On Tuesday, Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia denied that he had renewed contact with Putin and said his position with respect to Ukraine was “in line with that of Europe and the US.”