The EU executive reminded Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday that Russia had “illegitimately” invaded Ukraine after the former Italian prime minister boasted that he had recently reconnected with President Vladimir Putin and exchanged gifts of vodka, wine and “sweet” cards on his birthday.

The reaction from Brussels has added to the upset of Berlusconi’s comments in Italy, where far-right leader Giorgia Meloni is putting together a cabinet proposal ahead of the expected mandate to form a government. Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia is targeting the foreign ministry at a time when Meloni and the EU have strongly supported Ukraine in the war with Russia.

The drama began when the Italian news agency LaPresse released a recording of what were rumored to be comments by Berlusconi, 86, to his lawmakers during a meeting this week in the Chamber of Deputies. The three-time premier and media mogul has a longstanding friendship with Putin and has apparently previously justified the invasion of Moscow.

“I have reconnected with President Putin – a little, a lot,” Berlusconi heard. “He sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter for my birthday. I replied with 20 bottles of Lambrusco (an Italian red sparkling wine) and an equally sweet letter”. The occasion was Berlusconi’s 86th birthday on September 29, four days after the right-wing coalition won the most votes in Italy’s national elections.

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European Commission spokesperson Nabila Massrali was invited to respond to comments at Wednesday’s briefing and recalled that EU member states are free to conduct bilateral contacts with Moscow, while respecting EU policy to curtail such relations. “to the minimum necessary”.

“The priority of these contacts should obviously convey EU positions on the illegitimate invasion and aggression against Ukraine and call on Russian counterparts to stop it immediately and respect international law,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are seen during a joint visit to the Chersonesus Museum in Sevastopol, Crimea, 12 September 2015.
(Sasha Mordovets / Getty Images)

Vodka imports from Russia are banned, but Massrali said he would ask if that ban also applies to gifts.

In the recording, Berlusconi also appeared to defend Moscow’s position in the war, telling his lawmakers that Russian officials have repeatedly claimed that the West is at war with Russia “because we give Ukraine arms and funding.”

In previous comments, Berlusconi seemed to justify the Russian invasion by saying that Putin had been forced into it by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

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“The troops should have entered, reached Kiev within a week, replaced (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) the Zelenskyy government with decent people, and then left,” Berlusconi told his favorite late-night talk show host on September 22. He later backtracked, saying his words had been “simplified”.

Berlusconi’s office tried to disprove his comments on birthday vodka. In a preliminary statement on Tuesday, his office insisted that he had not resumed relations with Putin and that Berlusconi “told an old story to lawmakers about an incident that happened years ago.”

Hours later, after the audio was released, Forza Italia apparently tried to distance itself from the comments.

Silvio Berlusconi is attacked by the press as he leaves a meeting to decide the group leaders of the Lower House, in Rome, on Tuesday 18 October 2022.

Silvio Berlusconi is attacked by the press as he leaves a meeting to decide the group leaders of the Lower House, in Rome, on Tuesday 18 October 2022.
(Cecilia Fabiano / LaPresse via AP)

“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”, reads a statement. . “There are no margins of ambiguity, nor have there ever been”.

Berlusconi has a long history of friendship with Putin: he 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.

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Berlusconi’s latest comments risk complicating relations with Meloni, who should be chosen to become the next Italian prime minister. Meloni’s far-right credentials and past Eurosceptic views raised eyebrows in some European capitals, but he firmly supported NATO and Ukraine in the war.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which has its roots in a neo-fascist movement, has not responded publicly. But Enrico Letta of the opposition Democratic Party was rash, warning that Meloni’s right-wing coalition poses a threat to democracy. In a tweet, he recalled that another member of the coalition, the right-wing League, questioned the EU sanctions against Russia due to the impact on the Italian economy.

Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia and Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy participate in the closing event of the center-right coalition in Rome on Thursday 22 September 2022.

Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia and Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy participate in the closing event of the center-right coalition in Rome on Thursday 22 September 2022.
(Photo AP / Gregorio Borgia, File)

“Who harms Italy abroad? The opposition that is the opposition?” Letta wrote. “The president of the (lower) chamber who delegitimizes the EU sanctions against Russia? … Berlusconi who reconnects with the invader of Ukraine?”

The group of centrist and liberal lawmakers Renew Europe, the third group in the European Parliament, has urged the European People’s Party, of which Forza Italia is a part, to condemn the claims.

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“The EPP group claims that Putin is a threat to the West and must be defeated. It is time to stop the campaign for his friends in the EU,” tweeted the Renew group.

Separately, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen insisted that any friendly openness to Russia was currently out of the ordinary due to Putin’s continued aggression and targeting civilian infrastructure.

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“This marks a new chapter in an already very cruel war. The international order is very clear. These are war crimes,” he told EU lawmakers in a previously scheduled speech that was not in response to Berlucsoni. “These are acts of pure terror, and we must call them as such.”

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