Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said he had recently reconnected with longtime friend Russian President Vladimir Putin, exchanging gifts of wine, vodka and “sweet” letters over his recent birthday, according to a leaked recording.
The LaPresse news agency on Tuesday published audio of what it said was a secretly taped speech by Berlusconi, who turned 86 last month, to legislators of his Forza Italia party that is set to join Italy’s new government as part of a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni.
In the recording, the media tycoon is heard saying he is back in contact with Putin who counts him as one of “his five real friends”.
“I’ve reconnected with President Putin, quite a lot,” he said, describing how the Russian president sent him “20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter” for his birthday.
Berlusconi said he replied with bottles of Italian wine and a “letter as sweet”.
The comments made front-page news as the coalition headed by Meloni, who has strongly backed Ukraine after Russia’s invasion in late February, is divvying cabinet posts before formal consultations this week to form a new government.
Forza Italia, the junior member of the coalition, is seeking to get the foreign ministry, among other portfolios.
In the tape, Berlusconi also again seemed to defend Moscow’s position in the nearly eight-month war in Ukraine, 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 is 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 a late-night talk show on September 22. Later he backtracked, saying his words had been “oversimplified”.
Berlusconi’s office similarly tried to deny his audiotape comments about the birthday vodka. A statement on Tuesday insisted that he had not restarted relations with Putin and that Berlusconi “told an old story to lawmakers about an episode that occurred years ago”.
Hours later, Forza Italia 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 Eurosceptic views have raised eyebrows in some European capitals, but she has staunchly supported NATO and Ukraine in the war.
Relations between the two have already 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.