Berlusconi says he exchanged gifts and “sweet letters” with Putin

Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi said he has rekindled his old friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin by exchanging gifts and “sweet letters”, according to a recording leaked on Tuesday, which also expressed his dismay at the military support Italy’s for Ukraine expresses.

“Putin sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter for my birthday,” says Berlusconi, who turned 86 last month, in the audio recording released by Italy’s LaPresse news agency.

The former prime minister, whose Forza Italia party is part of Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing coalition and is due to enter government, told an MP from his party he responded with an “equally sweet note” and bottles of Lambrusco wine, he says.

Forza Italia was quick to deny that the billionaire media tycoon had rekindled his old friendship with the Russian leader, with whom he once had strong political ties and also shared vacations.

In a statement, the party said Berlusconi, with his MPs, “remembered” an episode many years ago and did not share recent events.

But in the note, Berlusconi also chafed at Italy’s military support for Ukraine and said he was “very, very, very concerned” about Italy’s tough stance on Moscow.

“Russian ministers said we are already at war with them for supplying Ukraine with arms and finance,” he is heard saying.

He added: “I can’t give my opinion or it will go to the press and it would be a disaster.”

Berlusconi’s claims of exchanging letters with Putin come after days of tensions with Meloni over the appointment of cabinet ministers, which led him to label the future prime minister “arrogant and offensive”.

His latest comments – which suggest a rekindling of his friendship with Putin – will only fuel simmering concerns about Italy’s future foreign policy direction and its approach to the war in Ukraine once a Meloni government comes to power.

Although Meloni has heavily criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two allies her coalition will depend on — Berlusconi and the Lega’s Matteo Salvini — are both longtime Putin admirers who have expressed their unease at the EU’s tough stance on Moscow have expressed.

In the run-up to last month’s election campaign, Salvini repeatedly lamented the high price Italians are paying for sanctions against Russia.

Just two days before the vote, Berlusconi appeared to defend Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, telling a TV interviewer that Putin “just wanted to replace [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelenskyj with a government of decent people”, but then encountered “unexpected resistance”.

In the days following her election victory, Meloni spoke to Zelenskyy to reassure him of Italy’s continued support in the fight against Russia.

But many fear that their reliance on their coalition partners will see the government soften its policy toward the Kremlin, in contrast to current Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s hardline anti-invasion stance.

Forza Italia said the party’s position on the “Ukrainian conflict and Russian responsibility is known to all [and] is consistent with the position of Europe and the United States”.

Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi Berlusconi says he exchanged gifts and “sweet letters” with Putin

Adam Bradshaw

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