ROME — The European Union executive reminded Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday that Russia had “illegitimately” invaded Ukraine after the former Italian prime minister boasted he recently reconnected with President Vladimir Putin and drank vodka, wine and vodka on his birthday exchanged “sweet” notes.
The reaction from Brussels added to the upheaval Berlusconi’s comments had in Italy, where far-right leader Giorgia Meloni is putting together a cabinet proposal ahead of an expected mandate to form a government. Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia is aiming for the foreign ministry at a time when Meloni and the EU have been heavily backing Ukraine in Russia’s war.
The drama began when Italy’s LaPresse news agency released a recording of remarks made by 86-year-old Berlusconi to his MPs during a meeting in the Lower Chamber of Deputies this week. The three-time prime minister and media mogul has had a long-standing friendship with Putin and has previously seemingly justified the invasion of Moscow.
“I reconnected with President Putin — a little, a lot,” Berlusconi was heard saying. “He sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a really sweet letter for my birthday. I replied with 20 bottles of Lambrusco (a sparkling Italian red wine) and a similarly sweet letter.” The occasion marked Berlusconi’s 86th birthday on September 29, four days after the right-wing coalition won the majority of votes in Italy’s general elections.
European Commission spokeswoman Nabila Massrali was asked to respond to comments at Wednesday’s briefing, reminding that EU member states are free to engage in bilateral contacts with Moscow while respecting EU policies, such Reducing relationships “to the necessary minimum”.
“The priority of these contacts should, of course, convey the EU’s positions on the illegitimate invasion and aggression against Ukraine and call on Russian colleagues to stop them immediately and comply with international law,” she said.
Vodka imports from Russia are banned, but Masrali said she will ask if the ban also applies to gifts.
In the recording, Berlusconi also appeared to defend Moscow’s position in the war, telling lawmakers that Russian officials have repeatedly said the West is at war with Russia “because we are giving arms and money to Ukraine.”
In previous comments, Berlusconi seemed to justify the invasion of Russia by saying that Putin was coerced into it by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
“The troops should go in, reach Kyiv within a week, replace the government (of Ukrainian President Volodymyr) with decent people Zelenskyy and then leave,” Berlusconi told his favorite late-night talk show host on September 22. He later backed down, saying his words were “oversimplified.”
Berlusconi’s office tried to deny his comments about the birthday vodka. In a preliminary statement on Tuesday, his office insisted he had not resumed ties with Putin and that Berlusconi “told lawmakers an old story about an episode that happened years ago.”
Hours later after the audio was released, Forza Italia apparently attempted to distance themselves from the comments.
“The position of Forza Italia and President Silvio Berlusconi on the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s responsibility is known to all and is in line with the position of Europe and the United States, which has been reiterated on several public occasions,” the party said in an explanation . “There is no room for ambiguity and never has been.”
Berlusconi has a long, friendly history with Putin: he hosted the Russian leader at his Sardinian villa and even visited Crimea with Putin in 2014 after the Russian leader annexed the peninsula from Ukraine.
Berlusconi’s recent comments are likely to complicate relations with Meloni, who is expected to become Italy’s next prime minister. Meloni’s far-right credentials and past Eurosceptic views have raised eyebrows in some European capitals, but she has staunchly supported NATO and Ukraine at war.
Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which has its roots in a neo-fascist movement, did not publicly respond. But Enrico Letta of the opposition Democratic Party, who has warned that Meloni’s right-wing coalition poses a threat to democracy, attacked. In a tweet, he recalled that another coalition member, the right-wing Lega, has questioned the European Union’s sanctions on Russia over the impact on the Italian economy.
“Who harms Italy abroad? The opposition that is in opposition?” Letta wrote. “The president of the (lower) chamber delegitimizing EU sanctions against Russia? … Berlusconi reconnecting with the invader of Ukraine?”
The Renew Europe group of centrist and liberal lawmakers, the third largest group in the European Parliament, called on the European People’s Party, of which Forza Italia is a member, to condemn the remarks.
“The EPP Group says Putin is a threat to the West & must be defeated. Time to stop standing up for his friends in the EU,” the Renew group tweeted.
Separately, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen insisted that a friendly opening up to Russia is unacceptable at the moment given Putin’s ongoing aggression and attacks on civilian infrastructure.
“This marks a new chapter in an already very cruel war. The international order is very clear. These are war crimes,” she told EU lawmakers in a previously scheduled speech that was not a response to Berlucsoni. “These are pure acts of terrorism, and we have to call it that.”