ROME – Italy's presumed next premier, Giorgia Meloni, issued a stark warning to Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday that he risked losing influence in any new government over his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as she asserted a strong pro-NATO, pro-European position about Russia's war in Ukraine.
“Italy will never be the weak link of the West with us in government,” Meloni said in a statement late Wednesday.
She was responding to private comments by Berlusconi to his Forza Italia lawmakers this week in which the three-time premier boasted of having re-established contact with Putin and exchanged gifts of vodka and wine over his recent 86th birthday, while justifying Putin's invasion of Ukraine.
“I have reconnected with President Putin — a little, a lot,” Berlusconi was heard saying in comments that were recorded and released by the LaPresse news agency. “He sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a really sweet letter for my birthday. I responded with 20 bottles of Lambrusco (a sparkling Italian red wine) and a similarly sweet letter.”
Berlusconi's comments added to the political upheaval in Italy as Meloni, whose far-right Brothers of Italy party won the most votes in the Sept. 25 election, tries to put together a Cabinet. She is expected to get a mandate to form Italy's next government as early as this week.
Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party, the junior partner in her right-wing coalition, is gunning for the foreign ministry, at a time when Meloni and the EU have strongly backed Ukraine in Russia's war. Some analysts suggested Berlusconi was intentionally trying to sabotage her future government.
Breaking a daylong silence, Meloni insisted she will lead a government with a clear foreign policy.
“Italy, with its head high, is part of Europe and the (NATO) Atlantic alliance,” she said. “Whoever doesn't agree with this cornerstone cannot be part of the government, at the cost of not having a government.”
Berlusconi has a long-standing friendship with Putin: He has entertained the Russian leader at his villa on Sardinia and even visited Crimea with Putin in 2014 after the Russian leader annexed the peninsula from Ukraine.
After releasing a first audio recording Tuesday about Berlusconi re-establishing contact with Putin over gifts and “sweet” birthday notes, LaPresse on Wednesday published another recording, apparently from the same session, in which Berlusconi seemingly defended Putin's decision to try to oust the Ukrainian government.
Berlusconi spoke disparagingly of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, accused him of provoking the conflict by increasing attacks on the eastern Donbas after 2014, when Russia-backed separatists started fighting Ukrainian troops. He said Putin's “special operation” in Ukraine was supposed to have lasted just two weeks to install a “decent, sensible” government in Kyiv.
But thanks to “unexpected and unforeseen” Ukrainian resistance and funding and weapons from the West that arrived “on Day 3, a special operation that was supposed to have lasted two weeks has become a war that will last some 200-plus years,” Berlusconi said.
He claimed there were no “true leaders” left in Europe or the U.S.
European Commission spokeswoman, Nabila Massrali, asked to respond to his comments Wednesday, said EU nations are free to conduct bilateral contacts with Moscow while respecting the EU policy to scale down such relations “to the necessary minimum.”
"The priority of these contacts should of course convey EU positions regarding the illegitimate invasion and aggression against Ukraine and call on Russian counterparts to stop it immediately and comply with international law,” she said.
Vodka imports from Russia are banned but Massrali said she would inquire whether that ban also applies to gifts.
In previous comments, Berlusconi seemed to justify Russia's invasion by saying Putin was forced into it by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine — a similar scenario he painted in the recording published Wednesday.
“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 his favorite late-night talk show host on Sept. 22.
Berlusconi’s office at first tried to deny his comments about the birthday vodka. In a statement Tuesday, his office insisted that he hadn’t restarted relations with Putin and that Berlusconi “told an old story to lawmakers about a episode that occurred years ago.”
Hours later, after the audio was released, Berlusconi's Forza Italia party 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,” the party said. “There are no margins of ambiguity, nor have there ever been.”
The opposition Democratic Party’s Enrico Letta, who has warned that Meloni’s far-right-led coalition represents a threat to democracy, pounced on Berlusconi's comments and said they undermined the credibility of any Meloni government.
“Any government that is born in Europe today has to choose whether to be with Putin, or with Ukraine and the European Union,” Letta said. “The Meloni government is being born under the worst sign of ambiguity.”
Raf Casert contributed from Brussels.
Follow all AP stories on the impact of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.