Russian president Vladimir Putin was “pushed” into invading Ukraine to put “decent people” in charge, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has controversially claimed, just days before an Italian general election where his party could help form the new government.
The comments by Berlusconi – whose Forza Italia party belongs to a right-wing coalition expected to win this Sunday’s general election – are likely to alarm Western allies.
“Putin was pushed by the Russian people, by his party, by his ministers to come up with this special operation,” Berlusconi told Italian public television RAI late on Thursday, using the official Russian wording for the war.
Russia’s plan was originally to conquer Kyiv “in a week”, replace Volodymir Zelensky, the democratically elected president of Ukraine, with “a government of decent people”, and get out “in another week,” he said.
“I haven’t even understood why Russian troops spread around Ukraine, while in my mind they should have only stuck around Kyiv”, said the 85-year-old.
The backlash to the comments was immediate from political rivals, forcing Berlusconi into a partial climbdown.
“These are scandalous and very serious words,” the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta, said. “If on Sunday night the result is favourable to the right, the happiest person would be Putin.”
Centrist leader Carlo Calenda, another election contender, told Radio24: “Yesterday Berlusconi spoke like a Putin general. It is totally outrageous.”
The veteran Italian politician released a statement on Friday saying his views had been “oversimplified”.
“The aggression against Ukraine is unjustifiable and unacceptable, (Forza Italia’s) position is clear. We will always be with the EU and NATO,” said Berlusconi.
He and Putin have been close friends in the past, with the Italian once describing the Russian as being like a younger brother.
In 2015, he claimed Putin was “undoubtedly the No 1 among world leaders”.
However, earlier this year, Berlusconi said he was “deeply disappointed and saddened” by Putin’s actions.
Thursday’s comments by Berlusconi highlight a potential crack in Italy’s right-wing coalition.
Under prime minister Mario Draghi, Italy has been a staunch supporter of Western sanctions on Russia in response to its actions in Ukraine.
Giorgia Meloni, of the far-right Brothers of Italy – tipped as the next Italian leader – has pledged to stick to that position, but Berlusconi and her other ally Matteo Salvini have been more ambivalent.