Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian ex-premier who has a longtime friendship with Vladimir Putin, has been caught on audiotape boasting that he had recently reconnected with the Russian president and exchanged gifts of vodka, wine and “sweet” letters over his recent birthday.
Italy’s LaPresse news agency published what it said were comments by Berlusconi, 86, to his center-right Forza Italia lawmakers during a meeting this week in the lower Chamber of Deputies.
“I have reconnected with President Putin,” Berlusconi was heard saying. “He sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a really sweet letter for my birthday. I responded with 20 bottles of Lambrusco (a sparkling Italian red wine) and a similarly sweet letter.” The occasion was Berlusconi’s 86th birthday on Sept. 29, four days after the right won the most votes in Italy’s national election.
The comments made front-page news as Italy’s conservative coalition headed by Giorgia Meloni, who has strongly backed Ukraine in Russia’s war, is divvying Cabinet posts before formal consultations this week to form a new government. Forza Italia, the junior member of the coalition, is gunning for the foreign ministry, among other ministries.
In the audiotape, Berlusconi also again seemed to defend Moscow’s position in the war, relaying to his lawmakers that Russian officials have repeatedly said the West is at war with Russia “because we’re giving Ukraine weapons and financing.”
It’s not the first time Berlusconi has seemingly defended Putin. Late in the campaign, he seemed to justify Russia’s invasion by saying Putin was forced into it by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas region of eastern 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. Later he backtracked, saying his words had been “oversimplified.”
Berlusconi’s office similarly tried to deny his audiotape comments about the birthday vodka. In a preliminary statement Tuesday, his office insisted that he hadn’t restarted relations with Putin and that Berlusconi “told an old story to lawmakers about a episode that occurred years ago.”
Hours later, after the audiotape was released, Forza Italia then tried to distance itself from the comments.
“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.”
Berlusconi has a long, friendly history with Putin: He has entertained 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 latest comments are likely to complicate relations with Meloni, who is expected to be tapped to become Italy’s next premier. Meloni’s far-right credentials and past euroskeptic views have raised eyebrows in some European capitals, but she has staunchly supported NATO and Ukraine in the war.
Already relations between the two soured over Berlusconi’s insistence on placing a loyalist in her Cabinet and over Forza Italia’s refusal to vote for her candidate for Senate president.