"Myself, if I was Prime Minister, I never would have met Zelenskyy," the 86-year-old told reporters in Milan on Sunday. "Because, as you know, we are witnessing the devastation of his country and the massacre of his soldiers and his people. It would have been sufficient if he had stopped attacking the two autonomous republics of the Donbas; then this [war] would never have happened. So I have a very, very negative perception of this person's behaviour."
While in office in the 2000s, Berlusconi — whose Forza Italia party is currently in a right-wing coalition government with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini's Lega — struck up an extremely close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In 2015, Berlusconi paid a personal visit to Putin in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. He later called Russia's annexation "valid" and "democratic".
'An attempt to kiss Putin's hands'
Berlusconi's remarks were almost immediately denounced as "Russian propaganda" by senior Ukrainian Government officials.
"The absurd accusations of Berlusconi aimed at the Ukrainian President arre an attempt to kiss Putin's hands, which are elbow-deep in blood," Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko wrote on Facebook. "It is an attempt to demonstrate his loyalty to the Russian dictator."
He added: "The Italian politician must realise that by spreading Russian propaganda, he is encouraging Russia to continue its crimes against Ukraine, and therefore he bears political and moral responsibility."
Nikolenko's words were echoed by senior Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, who suggested that the former Italian Prime Minister is effectively endorsing the "genocide" of the Ukrainian people.
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"[Berlusconi is] a VIP agitator who acts within the framework of Russian propaganda," Podolyak said in an interview with La Repubblica. He added: "No one attacked the Russian Federation. In February 2022, they launched a large-scale invasion with the intention of occupying the entire territory of another country and killing as many Ukrainian citizens as possible. So Berlusconi must stop disguising his true desire and publicly declare that he is in favour of the genocide of Ukrainians."
Berlusconi's recent comments are not the first time he has openly advocated pro-Russian views: in September last year, he claimed that Putin had been "pushed by the Russian population, by his party and by his ministers to invent this special operation", and that the goal of Russia's invasion had been to "replace the Zelenskyy Government with decent people".