ROME: Russian President Vladimir Putin was pushed into Ukraine and wanted to put decent people in charge of Kyiv, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has said, drawing fierce criticism ahead of Italy's election.
Italian leader whose Forza Italia party belongs to a right-wing coalition is expected to win Sunday's parliamentary election on Sunday Sep 25. He is a long-time friend of Putin and his comments are likely to alarm Western allies.
Berlusconi told Italian public television RAI late on Thursday that Putin was pushed by his party, by his party, to come up with a special operation.
Russia's plan was originally to conquer Kyiv in a week and replace the democratically elected Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy with a government of decent people and get out in another week, he said.
I haven't even understood why Russian troops spread around Ukraine while in my mind they should have only stuck around Kyiv, said the 85-year-old Berlusconi, who once described Putin as being like a younger brother.
During the seven-month war, Putin's stated war aims have varied. Ukraine initially chased his troops from the Kyiv area, and more recently from parts of the northeast near the Russia border. Putin believes that the main aim is to secure territory in the Donbas region, partly controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
Berlusconi released a statement on Friday, saying his views had been oversimplified. The aggression against Ukraine is unjustifiable and unacceptable, Forza Italia's position is clear. He said that they will always be with the EU and NATO.
The leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta, described Berlusconi's comments on the war as scandalous. If on Sunday night the result is favourable to the right, the happiest person would be Putin, Letta told RAI radio.
Two pollsters Reuters spoke to downplayed suggestions that Berlusconi's statements were driven by electoral calculations.
The remarks shift very few votes, people are not very interested in foreign policy, said Renato Mannheimer, head of the Eumetra polling agency.
Antonio Noto, head of Noto Sondaggi said he thinks he let slip something he believes in but didn't want to say out loud.
After the invasion, Italy has been a staunch supporter of Western sanctions on Russia.
Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy, tipped as the next premier, has pledged to stick to that position, but her allies Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini of the League have been more ambivalent.
Berlusconi said on Thursday that Moscow's decision to invade followed an appeal from pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, who told Putin: Please defend us because if you do not defend us, we don't know where we could end up. Voting began on Friday in four Ukrainian regions, mostly held by Russian forces including the separatists, the beginning of a plan by Putin to annex a large part of Ukraine.