Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s rumoured next prime minister, warned Silvio Berlusconi bluntly on Oct. 19 that his closeness with Russian President Vladimir Putin put him at risk of losing influence in any future administration. She also made clear her overwhelming support for NATO and the European Union in regard to Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.

“Italy will never be the weak link of the West with us in government,” Meloni declared.

She was reacting to Berlusconi’s private remarks to his Forza Italia party lawmakers this week, in which the three-time prime minister boasted of re-establishing contact with Putin and described how the two men exchanged gifts of vodka and wine for the latter’s recent 86th birthday, all the while defending Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

In remarks that were captured on tape and made public by LaPresse news agency, Berlusconi was heard saying, “I have reconnected with President Putin – a little, a lot.” He continued, “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.”

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Political turmoil in Italy has been exacerbated by Berlusconi’s remarks as Meloni, whose far-right Brothers of Italy political party gained the most votes in the election on Sept. 25, attempts to form a government. As soon as this week, it’s anticipated she will be given the go-ahead to establish the next Italian government.

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While Meloni and the EU have firmly backed Ukraine in Russia’s war, Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party, the junior partner in her right-wing coalition, is vying for the position of foreign minister. Some observers thought that Berlusconi was consciously attempting to undermine her prospective administration.

After a day-long hush, Meloni announced that she will run a government with a distinct foreign policy.

“Italy, with its head high, is part of Europe and the (NATO) Atlantic alliance,” she stated. “Whoever doesn’t agree with this cornerstone cannot be part of the government, at the cost of not having a government.”

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Putin and Berlusconi have a lengthy friendship: In fact, after Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the two even travelled to the peninsula together. Putin has been hosted at Berlusconi’s estate in Sardinia.

Apparently from the same session as the first audio recording about Berlusconi re-connecting with Putin over gifts and “sweet” birthday notes that was made public on Oct. 18, LaPresse published a second audio recording the next day in which Berlusconi seemed to protect Putin’s attempt to overthrow the Ukrainian government.

President Volodymyr Zelensky was disparaged by Berlusconi, who said Zelensky increased attacks on the eastern Donbas after 2014, when Russian-backed separatists began battling Ukrainian forces. According to him, the goal of Putin’s so-called special operation in Ukraine was to appoint a “good, sensible” government in Kyiv within just two weeks.

However, because of “unexpected and unforeseen” Ukrainian resistance, Western funding, and newly delivered weapons “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.

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He asserted that neither America nor Europe any longer had “true leaders.”

When questioned about his remarks on Oct. 19, Nabila Massrali, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, responded that EU countries are free to engage in bilateral contacts with Moscow as long as they respect the EU policy to keep these contacts “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 commented.

Massrali also said she would find out if gifts are included in the ban on Russian vodka imports, but she did not elaborate.

In earlier remarks, Berlusconi appeared to defend Russia’s invasion by claiming that pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas compelled Putin to launch it.

On Sept. 22, Berlusconi spoke to the host of his favorite late-night talk show, “The troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv within a week, replace  Zelensky’s government with decent people and then leave.”

Enrico Letta of the opposition Democratic Party seized on Berlusconi’s remarks, claiming they cast doubt on the legitimacy of any Meloni administration. Letta has previously warned that the coalition led by Meloni, a member of the far-right, poses a threat to democracy.

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