Silvio Berlusconi was accused of speaking “like a Russian general” on Friday after claiming that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was intended simply to install “decent people” in Kyiv, on the eve of an election that has raised fears of Italy going soft on Moscow .
He said President Putin had been “forced” to invade Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists in Donbas and Russian politicians.
Mr Berlusconi, who is likely to be part of Italy’s new government after a general election on Sunday, made the extraordinary remarks during an interview on an Italian current affairs program on Thursday night.
They are likely to alarm the US, Britain and other Western allies, who fear that the right-wing coalition tipped to win the election could waver on sanctions against Russia and military support for Ukrainian forces.
He tried to retreat from the remarks on Friday but by then the damage was done, with political opponents calling his comments shameful.
“These are scandalous and very serious words,” said Enrico Letta, the head of the centre-left Democratic Party.
“If on Sunday night the result is favorable to the right, the happiest person would be Putin.”
Carlo Calenda, the head of another centre-left party, accused Mr Berlusconi of “speaking like a Putin general. It is totally outrageous.”
With a friendship that dates back years, Mr Berlusconi and President Putin have exchanged personal gifts, with the Russian leader once giving his Italian counterpart a double bed.
They even went on holiday to Mr Putin’s dacha, where they were photographed beaming and wearing big furry hats.
Critics accuse Mr Berlusconi, 85, of being an apologist for the regime in Moscow.
President Putin finds himself in a “difficult and dramatic situation” after being compelled by pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas, his ministers and his party to attack Ukraine, said Mr Berlusconi, who served three stints as Italy’s prime minister.
Separatists told the Russian leader that they had suffered 16,000 casualties during years of fighting Ukrainian forces and begged for Russian protection, Mr Berlusconi claimed.
“Putin was pushed by the Russian population, by his party and by his ministers to come up with this special operation,” said Mr Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party will contest the election in alliance with the anti-immigration League and the far-right Brothers of Italy party, led by Giorgia Meloni.
“So the troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv in a week, replace the Zelensky government with decent people and then come back after a week,” he told the television program Porta a Porta.
“Instead, they encountered an unexpected level of resistance which was then fed by the supply of weapons of all kinds from the West,” he said.
He made no mention of the Russian death squads who reportedly had the task of hunting down and killing President Zelensky following the invasion in February.
In the face of indignation from his political opponents, Mr Berlusconi claimed on Friday that his remarks had been “oversimplified”.
“The aggression against Ukraine is unjustifiable and unacceptable. We will always be with the EU and NATO,” he said.