Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, 86, is a long-time friend of Putin and in a first leaked audio file released on Tuesday, he revealed to parliamentarians from his Forza Italia party that he was back in touch with Russian President Vladimir Putin and had exchanged “sweet letters” and gifts.
“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 Berlusconi, 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”.
A party spokesperson denied Mr Berlusconi was back in touch with Putin, saying he had been telling his parliamentarians “an old story referring to an episode many years ago”.
In a second file, released by news agency LaPresse on Wednesday, Mr Berlusconi said Ukraine had sunk a 2014 peace deal that was designed to end a separatist war by Russian speakers in the eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Repeating accusations made by Putin that have been denied by Ukraine, Mr Berlusconi said President Zelensky made the situation much worse when he came to power in 2019.
Mr Berlusconi also repeated an assertion that Putin had bowed to internal pressure and only invaded Ukraine to set up a new government “of decent people with common sense”.
On Tuesday, after the first recording was released, Forza Italia said Mr Berlusconi’s view of the war was “in line with the position of Europe and the United States”.
However, opponents have leapt on the twin recordings to accuse Mr Berlusconi of undermining Giorgia Meloni’s credibility.
“Berlusconi’s comments are very grave and incompatible with Italian and European positions,” said Enrico Letta, the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party.
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“On one thing I have been, am, and will always be clear.
“I intend to lead a government with a clear and unequivocal foreign policy line,” she said. “Anyone who does not agree with this cornerstone cannot be part of the government.”
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.