Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s three-time former prime minister, whose party is forecast to return to government after the general election on Sunday, has sparked a row after defending the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, over the war in Ukraine.
The 85-year-old billionaire told Italian TV that Putin, an old friend of his, was pushed to invade Ukraine by the Russian people and by ministers who wanted Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s administration replaced with “decent people”.
Berlusconi, who has condemned the war, told the chatshow Porta a Porta that separatists had gone to Moscow and told the media that Ukraine’s attacks had caused 16,000 deaths and that Putin was doing nothing to defend them.
“Putin was pushed by the Russian population, by his party and by his ministers to invent this special operation,” Berlusconi said. “The troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv within a week, replace Zelenskiy’s government with decent people and then leave. Instead they found resistance, which was then fed by arms of all kinds from the west.”
Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is the junior partner in a coalition led by Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right Brothers of Italy and including Matteo Salvini’s League that is forecast to comfortably win the election. Berlusconi is running for senator in the ballot.
During his time as prime minister, Berlusconi nurtured close relations with Putin, praising his leadership and helping to forge energy deals that some blame for Italy being so dependent on Russian gas today.
Forza Italia and the League supported sending arms to Ukraine when they were part of Mario Draghi’s broad coalition, which collapsed in July, as did Brothers of Italy. As a coalition, they have promised to continue Italy’s support of Ukraine.
“The war has lasted more than 200 days,” Berlusconi said. “The situation has become very difficult. I feel ill when I hear of the dead because I have always believed that war is the greatest madness of all.”
Enrico Letta, the leader of the centre-left Democratic party, said Berlusconi’s remarks were scandalous and “legitimised Moscow”.
He said: “Those comments demonstrate that in part of our electoral system, on the right but not only, there are those who, in short, say: ‘Let’s stop this war, let’s give Putin what he wants.’ I find that unacceptable.”
Salvini has also nurtured ties with Russia, heaped praise on Putin in the past and criticised the economic sanctions against the country over its war in Ukraine for “bringing Italy to its knees”.