ROME — Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian leader who recently returned to front-line politics, has reconnected with his old friend Russian President Vladimir Putin with an exchange of gifts and “sweet” letters over his recent birthday.
Berlusconi, a crucial kingmaker for a right-wing coalition that is seeking to form a government after having pledged to back Ukraine, was recorded boasting that the pair recently got back in touch. The comments prompted backlash from Brussels and from the woman set to be Italy’s next leader, who pledged her government would back Ukraine in a thinly veiled rebuke of Berlusconi.
“I reconnected with President Putin — a little bit, well a lot,” Berlusconi, 86, reportedly said in a conversation with lawmakers from his center-right Forza Italia party, according to Italy’s LaPresse news agency, which published the comments.
“For my birthday he sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter,” he said, adding that he responded by sending bottles of the Italian wine Lambrusco “and a letter just as sweet.”
“I have been declared by him as the first of his five real friends,” he said.
The comments made front-page news in Italy as the country’s conservative coalition led by Giorgia Meloni, who strongly backed Ukraine during the recent election campaign, is deciding who should make up its Cabinet before formal consultations this week to form a new government.
Meloni needs the support of Forza Italia to keep its majority in the Senate and the lower house of parliament. Among other ministries, the party has expressed an interest in leading the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
Meloni’s other ally in the coalition, Matteo Salvini of The League, has repeatedly called for Italy to end its sanctions against Russia.
Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which can trace its roots to a fascist party founded by supporters of dictator Benito Mussolini, did not immediately respond publicly to the comments.
But Meloni herself later issued a sharply worded statement.
She said any party that disagreed with her foreign policy line should not join the government, which is set to take office next week.
“Italy with us in government will never be the weak link in the West,” she said.
Meloni has staunchly defended Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion in February, and has supported Western sanctions against Moscow.
“On one thing I have been, am, and will always be clear. I intend to lead a government with a clear and unequivocal foreign policy line,” she said. “Anyone who does not agree with this cornerstone cannot be part of the government.”
Enrico Letta of the opposition Democratic Party, who has warned that Meloni’s right-wing coalition represents a threat to democracy, pounced.
In a tweet, he recalled that another coalition member, the right-wing League, has questioned European Union sanctions against Russia because of the impact on the Italian economy.
“Who’s harming Italy abroad? The opposition that is in opposition?” Letta wrote. “The president of the [lower] Chamber who delegitimizes E.U. sanctions against Russia? … Berlusconi who reconnects with the invader of Ukraine?”
It is not the first time Berlusconi has seemed to defend Putin, with whom he has a long and friendly history. He has entertained Putin at his Sardinian villa, and he even visited Crimea with Putin in 2014 after Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine.
“The troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv within a week, replace [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy’s government with decent people and then leave,” Berlusconi told his favorite late-night talk show host on Sept. 22. He backtracked later, saying his words had been “oversimplified.”
Berlusconi responded with a joke when reporters asked him about his latest comments by reporters, which his Forza Italia party tried to distance itself from.
“The position of Forza Italia and President Silvio Berlusconi with respect to the Ukrainian conflict and Russian responsibilities is known to all and is in line with the position of Europe and the United States, reaffirmed on several public occasions,” the party said in a statement. “There are no margins of ambiguity, nor have there ever been.”
European Commission spokeswoman, Nabila Massrali, was asked to respond to the comments at Wednesday’s briefing, and recalled that EU member states are free to conduct bilateral contacts with Moscow, while respecting the EU policy to scale down such relations “to the necessary minimum.”
“The priority of these contacts should of course convey EU positions regarding the illegitimate invasion and aggression against Ukraine and call on Russian counterparts to stop it immediately and comply with international law,” she said.
Vodka imports from Russia are banned, but Massrali said she would inquire whether that ban also applies to gifts.
Associated Press and Reuters contributed.