Veteran Italian statesman Silvio Berlusconi has ruffled some feathers in both Rome and Kiev after attacking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his role in the crisis with Russia, and criticizing Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni for agreeing to meet with the Ukrainian leader.
“If I were prime minister I would never have met Zelensky, because we are witnessing the devastation of his country and the massacre of his soldiers and civilians,” Berlusconi told reporters Sunday evening after taking part in regional elections in Lombardy, northern Italy.
“I judge this gentleman’s behavior very, very negatively,” the 84-year-old former minister said, referring to Zelensky’s role in fomenting the crisis in the Donbass. “All he had to do was stop attacking the two autonomous republics of the Donbass and this would not have happened,” Berlusconi said.
Berlusconi urged the US to commit to a multi-trillion dollar ‘Marshall Plan’-style peace deal to rebuild Ukraine, with the funds to be made available on the condition that Kiev agrees to an immediate ceasefire “tomorrow,” on pain of a complete halt to Western financial and weapons assistance. “Only this could convince this gentleman [Zelensky] to reach a ceasefire,” the former PM believes.
Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, a member of Prime Minister Meloni’s coalition government who also happens to be a member Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, walked back the party leader’s comments, assuring in a tweet that “Forza Italia has always sided in favour of the independence of Ukraine,” and “on the side of Europe, NATO and the West.” Tajani assured that the party would “continue to vote with our government allies” in respect of the government’s course.
Meloni’s office similarly rushed to clarify that Rome’s “support for Ukraine” remains “solid and unwavering,” and includes Italy’s weapons support to Kiev.
Berlusconi’s remarks also sparked predictable outrage from Kiev, with a Foreign Ministry spokesperson accusing the Italian statesman of trying to “kiss Putin’s hands” just as he had kissed “Libyan dictator” Muammar Gaddafi’s, and charging Berlusconi with “spreading Russian propaganda.”
Zelensky aide Mykhailo Podolyak attacked Berlusconi as a “VIP agitator who acts within the framework of Russian propaganda, and trade’s Italy’s reputation for his friendship with Putin.”
Berlusconi served as Italy’s prime minister between 1994-1995, 2001-2006, and 2008-2011, and was one of the strongest proponents within the European Union of Russia’s integration into the bloc, and of the concept of a Greater Europe stretching ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’.
The strong personal rapport Berlusconi struck up with Putin and former president Dmitry Medvedev cooled last spring after the Italian statesman expressed deep disappointment with Putin’s “behavior” in Ukraine. However, in recent months the former prime minister has carefully amended his views on the crisis, and reportedly restored his personal friendship with Putin.
Russia kicked off a military operation in Ukraine a year ago amid escalating shelling and sabotage attacks against the Donbass, and fears of an imminent Ukrainian invasion, which prompted Donetsk and Lugansk leaders to start an evacuation of the civilian population to Russia.
President Zelensky admitted last week that he never intended to implement the 2015 Minsk peace agreement – which would have reintegrated the Donbass back into Ukraine peacefully in exchange for broad autonomy, saying the Ukrainian side was only using the deal for prisoner exchanges.