Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Tuesday he was back in touch with Russian President Vladimir Putin and had recently exchanged “sweet letters” with him, according to an audio released by an Italian news agency.
“I have got back in touch a bit with Putin, quite a lot, in the sense that for my birthday he sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter,” Mr Berlusconi told his lower house MPs according to the audio issued by news agency LaPresse.
“I answered him with some bottles of Lambrusco (wine) and an equally sweet letter,” said the former Italian Prime Minister, whose birthday was on September 29.
He added that he was extremely worried about the situation in Ukraine but could not give his true opinion because “if it gets in the press there’ll be a disaster.”
The comments come as Mr Berlusconi negotiates cabinet posts in a new government following Italy’s September 25 election which brought victory to the rightist alliance led by Giorgia Meloni, who is expected to be named prime minister next week.
A party spokesperson denied he was back in touch with Putin, saying he had been telling his parliamentarians “an old story referring to an episode many years ago.”
Forza Italia later issued a statement saying the position of Mr Berlusconi and the party on the war was “in line with the position of Europe and the United States,” and there was “no room for ambiguity and there never has been.”
Relations between Italy’s rightist coalition and Russia are being closely watched. Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant League, has often praised Putin and used to don a T-shirt emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face.
On Tuesday the newly-elected lower house speaker Lorenzo Fontana, a League politician, warned in an interview on state television about the consequences of sanctions against Russia.
“They could become a boomerang and we will find ourselves in great difficulty,” he told the talk show Porta a Porta.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s grip on power remains firm despite military setbacks in Ukraine, a botched mobilisation, and political infighting, eight well-informed sources said, but some said that could change fast if total defeat beckoned.
Most of them said the Russian president was in one of the tightest spots in his more than two decades in power over Ukraine, where his invading forces have been pushed back in places by a Western-armed Kyiv.
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But the sources, including current and former Western diplomats and government officials, said no imminent threat was apparent from his inner circle, military or intelligence services.
“For the moment, Putin is hanging in there,” said Anthony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Russia.
He said he believed the Russian leader hoped to negotiate over Ukraine, probably with the Americans, and hoped Moscow’s flagging battlefield fortunes would pick up despite what the West says is a lack of manpower, hardware and even missiles.
In power since 1999, Putin has weathered numerous domestic crises and wars, and more than once faced down large street protests before effectively outlawing any real opposition.
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The 70-year-old’s “special military operation” in Ukraine since Feb. 24, however, has created the most tense East-West standoff since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and triggered the harshest Western sanctions against Russia ever.
His army has endured humiliating retreats as well as huge losses, and hundreds of thousands of Russian men have fled abroad to avoid combat. Putin has also engaged in nuclear sabre-rattling in what some interpret as a sign of desperation.
Some allies — from “Putin’s foot soldier”, as the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya calls himself, to “Putin’s chef”, nickname of the head of a once shadowy mercenary group — have accused military chiefs of mishandling the war.