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 programme 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 favourable 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 programme 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.
Polling suggests that the right-wing coalition will comfortably win the election on Sunday.
With Brothers of Italy being the strongest of the three parties, Ms Meloni is poised to become Italy’s first female prime minister. The government will be the most right-wing in Italy since the days of Benito Mussolini.
Ms Meloni has been a staunch supporter of sanctions against Moscow and has pledged to continue the policies of the outgoing government, which was led by former central banker Mario Draghi.
But Mr Salvini has criticised sanctions, saying they are punishing Italian firms that export to Russia, and Mr Berlusconi was slow to condemn the invasion of Ukraine.
He once stood in Moscow’s Red Square wearing a t-shirt printed with an image of President Putin, has opposed the imposition of sanctions on Russia and has been critical of Italy sending weapons to the Ukrainians.
Amid concern over the orientation of the next Italian government, a row broke out between Mr Salvini and Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission.
She said there would be consequences for Italy if it veered away from democratic principles, in what appeared to be a veiled threat to Ms Meloni and her right-wing allies.
"My approach is that whatever democratic government is willing to work with us, we're working together," she said. "We’ll see. If things go in a difficult direction, I've spoken about Hungary and Poland, we have tools.”
She seemed to be referring to a recommendation by the European Commission to suspend some 7.5 billion euros in funding for Hungary over corruption.
Mr Salvini angrily criticised her remarks, calling on Ms von der Leyen to either apologise or resign.
"What is that, a threat? Shameful arrogance. Respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people!" he tweeted.
Meanwhile, the Russian embassy in Rome put out a tweet which showed Putin meeting a succession of Italian leaders, from across the political spectrum, over the years:
The insinuation seemed to be that all of them had at one time or another been compromised by close relations with the Russian leader – ignoring the fact that several of them had met him in a purely institutional capacity.
“From the recent history of relations between Russia and Italy,” the embassy wrote. “We have quite a few of them to remember.”