Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is facing criticism for comments on his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine.
The 86-year-old former Italian leader said he “re-established relations with President Putin,” according to audio released this week by Italian news agency LaPresse.
Putin sent him 20 bottles of vodka and a “very sweet letter” on his birthday last month, Berlusconi says, and he sent back a letter and some Italian sparkling wine, according to the LaPresse audio.
He went on to boast that Putin called him “the first of his five true friends.”
A secret recording: Berlusconi’s comments were surreptitiously captured during a meeting of his Forza Italia party in the Parliamentary Chamber Tuesday, his office confirmed with CNN on Thursday, while confirming the authenticity of the audio clips released by LaPresse.
Berlusconi, who will be part of Italy’s incoming coalition government, can be heard saying Putin “was against any initiative” for war against Ukraine.
In the audio clips, the Italian politician can be heard talking to the members of his party about what he thought led to the war.
He accuses Kyiv of violating a 2014 treaty with separatist-controlled regions in Donbas and says the Russian-backed leaders in the area asked Putin to defend them.
“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),” Berlusconi can then be heard saying. “And the war, instead of being a two-week operation, has become a two-century war.”
In the LaPresse audio, Berlusconi is also heard saying, “I do not see how Putin and Zelensky can sit at a mediation table.
Defending his remarks: Berlusconi defended his comments in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera 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 told the newspaper.
“I don’t deny my past friendship with Vladimir Putin, that brought to important results, which were achieved in full accord with our western allies … But today the circumstances have changed,” he said.
The comments he made were “ended with the condemnation of the Russian invasion and with the hope of a negotiated solution that would put an end to this massacre and protect the rights of the Ukrainian people,” Berlusconi went on to say.