Silvio Berlusconi’s latest pro-Putin tirade. On Sunday, the former Italian Prime Minister and political leader of Forza Italia (a junior-but-crucial government party) again made waves by voicing his Russian-slanted opinions on the invasion of Ukraine and on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
- All he had to do to avoid the war, said Mr Berlusconi, “was to stop attacking the two autonomous republics of the Donbas […] So I judge the behaviour of this gentleman very, very negatively.”
- He was referring to the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, subject to a yearslong Russian invasion and annexed in late September via a sham referendum.
- Had he been prime minister, said Mr Berlusconi, he would have never gone to meet the Ukrainian President “because we are witnessing the devastation of his country and the slaughter of its soldiers and civilians.”
- PM Giorgia Meloni, a fervent supporter of the Ukrainian resistance, is expected to travel to Kyiv in the coming days.
- Then Mr Berlusconi went as far as advising United States President Joe Biden to achieve peace by offering President Zelensky billions in funding to rebuild the country, on condition of him declaring a ceasefire.
- Once again: Russia is bent on invading Ukraine, whose forces are resisting a hostile, imperialistic foreign power, so a “ceasefire” would equate to surrendering.
The Sanremo nexus. Finally, Mr Berlusconi also weighed in on Mr Zelensky’s words during the Italian Music Festival, calling him an “image used for an ad campaign that’s appearing everywhere […] something that’s absolutely ridiculous.”
- The planned pre-recorded video featuring Mr Zelensky’s message had been watered down to a letter due to political pressure and a shambled response by public broadcaster RAI, which organises the event.
- Government partner and League leader Matteo Salvini was the first to open that particular front. On Sunday, after the Festival ended, he said that the events call for a “reflection on the management of RAI.”
Some love stories never end. Mr Berlusconi is a longtime admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has shown his sympathies time and again, even after the invasion and despite the government’s position. Over the past months, he said that Ukraine had to accept Mr Putin’s demands, spoke against sending weapons to Kyiv and remarked on the cost of sanctions for the West. Then he maintained that the Russian President was forced to invade Ukraine and attempt to replace Mr Zelensky with “decent people.” Finally, he boasted of “reconnecting” with Mr Putin and exchanging “sweet letters” and birthday gifts with him.
Forza Italia’s patch-up. Shortly after Mr Berlusconi’s comments, his party released an official note highlighting that his support for Ukraine “has never been in doubt” and that he never mentioned Mr Putin. The text recast his words as “concern” for the ongoing violence and remark on the party’s “adherence to the government majority, to NATO’s position, to that of Europe and the US.”
- Party leader Antonio Tajani, who’s also Foreign Minister and deputy PM, stressed that Forza Italia “has always been in favour of the independence of Ukraine, on the side of Europe, NATO and the West. We will continue to vote with our government allies, according to our programme.”
The government’s intervention… According to the Italian media, FM Tajani played a key role in mediating with the government during the complex hours that followed Mr Berlusconi’s remarks. An official note reiterated that “the Italian government’s support for Ukraine is firm and convinced, as clearly foreseen in the programme and as confirmed in all the parliamentary votes of the majority supporting the executive.”
…and the Kremlin’s grin. Over in Russia, where the State-controlled media gave wide space to the politician’s words, the satisfaction was palpable. “It is not up to me to judge and give votes to [Mr] Berlusconi; these are things that concern Italians,” commented Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
- “I confine myself to the facts, and the facts say that for eight years, since 2014, Russia insisted that the Minsk agreements for peace in Ukraine be implemented. But this was not what the West had in mind,” she said, citing a trite Russian propaganda narrative.
Ukraine’s reaction. On Monday, Mykhailo Podolyak – advisor to President Zelensky – called Mr Berlusconi “a VIP agitator acting within the framework of Russian propaganda, bartering Italy’s reputation with his friendship with [Mr] Putin. His words are a detriment to Italy,” he added, pushing the Italian politician to “throw off his mask and say publicly that he is in favour of the genocide of the Ukrainian people.”
- In a Facebook post, Oleg Nikolenko – spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry – rejected Mr Berlusconi’s “absurd accusations” as an “attempt to kiss [Mr] Putin’s hands, which are elbow-deep in blood” and “to demonstrate his loyalty to the Russian dictator.”
- “Instead, we highly appreciate the prompt response of Italian [PM] Georgia Meloni, which reaffirmed the Italian government’s unwavering support for Ukraine after [Mr] Berlusconi’s unacceptable statements,” added Mr Nikolenko.
So, what of the government’s line on Ukraine? Expect substantial continuity. Mr Berlusconi’s sympathies for President Putin are nothing new, like his outlandish comments, and Mr Tajani’s quick reaction showcases the party’s (and the government’s) awareness of the need to contain its leaders’ personal feelings.