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Italy's Berlusconi sparks new crisis over Putin ties

President Mattarella to hold talks on formation of new government.

The right-wing coalition preparing to form Italy's next government faced a fresh crisis on Wednesday over secretly recorded comments about Ukraine by former three-time Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.

In the leaked recording, obtained by LaPresse news agency, Berlusconi told lawmakers from his centre-right Forza Italia party that Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky pushed Russian president Vladimir Putin into an endless war.

Berlusconi, 86, accused Zelensky of provoking the conflict by "tripling" attacks on the Donbas region and claiming that Putin's “special operation” in Ukraine was supposed to have lasted just two weeks but escalated after the West sent weapons and funds.

He also claimed there were no “real leaders” left in Europe or the US, joking that "the only real leader is me".

The comments are apparently part of another recording, released by LaPresse on Tuesday, in which Berlusconi talked of renewed ties with Putin who had sent him 20 bottles of vodka for his birthday as well as a "sweet letter".

Berlusconi, who before the war in Ukraine had long boasted of his 20-year friendship with Putin, said he responded by sending Putin "bottles of Lambrusco and an equally sweet note".

The private speech, in which Berlusconi asked for maximum discretion, allegedly took place this week and was greeted with applause from his audience.

Forza Italia, the junior partner in Italy's rightist coalition preparing for government, is now in damage control as it attempts to downplay Berlusconi's comments amid rumours that a third recording exists.

The timing of the controversy could not be worse for Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Fratelli d'Italia, who is expected to become Italy's next prime minister.

Meloni responded to the crisis on Wednesday night, insisting that her new government would be pro-NATO and fully a part of Europe.

“Whoever doesn't agree with this cornerstone cannot be part of the government, at the cost of not having a government", she said.

On 22 September, ahead of the election triumph by the right-wing coalition, Berlusconi came to the defence of Putin, claiming on Italian television that the Russian president was "pushed" into ordering the invasion of Ukraine.

Berlusconi's latest controversial remarks come as Italian president Sergio Mattarella is set to hold two days of consultations on the formation of a new cabinet, expected to be led by Meloni, on Thursday and Friday.

Political analysts say the fresh controversy may damage the prospects of Antonio Tajani, a senior Forza Italia figure and very close to Berlusconi, being appointed as foreign affairs minister.

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