Putin was 'pushed' into Ukraine war, says Italy's Berlusconi

By Alvise Armellini
ROME (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin was "pushed" into invading Ukraine and wanted to put "decent people" at the head of Kyiv, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said, drawing heavy criticism ahead of Italy's election itself.
The Italian leader, whose Forza Italia party is part of a right-wing coalition expected to win Sunday's general election, is a longtime friend of Putin and his comments are likely to alarm Western allies.
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"Putin was pushed by the Russian people, by his party, by his ministers, to come up with this particular operation," Berlusconi told Italian public television RAI late Thursday night, using the official Russian phrase for the war.
Russia's original plan was to capture Kyiv "in a week" and replace democratically elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with "a government of decent people" and get out "in another week," he said.
"I didn't even understand why Russian troops were spreading around Ukraine when in my opinion they should have just stayed around Kyiv," said the 85-year-old Berlusconi, who once described Putin as a younger brother.
Putin's stated war aims have changed during the seven-month war. Ukraine first drove its troops out of the Kyiv area and more recently from parts of the north-east near the border with Russia. Putin now says the main goal is to secure territory in Ukraine's Donbass region, which is partially controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
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Amid widespread condemnation of his comments by opponents, Berlusconi released a statement on Friday saying his views had been "oversimplified".
"The aggression against Ukraine is unjustifiable and unacceptable, the position of (Forza Italia) is clear. We will always be on the side of the EU and NATO,” he said.
"TOTALLY UNUSUAL"
Under outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italy was a staunch supporter of Western sanctions against Russia after the invasion.
Italy's far-right Brothers Giorgia Meloni, who has been proposed as the next prime minister, has promised to stick to that position, but Berlusconi and her other League ally Matteo Salvini have been more ambivalent.
"These are scandalous and very serious words," center-left Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta said of Berlusconi's remarks. "If the result on Sunday evening is favorable for the right, Putin would be the happiest person," Letta said on RAI radio.
Center leader Carlo Calenda, another candidate, told Radio24: “Yesterday Berlusconi spoke like a Putin general. It's completely outrageous."
Berlusconi said Thursday Moscow's decision to invade was in response to an appeal by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
He said their leaders went to the Kremlin and told Putin directly, "Please defend us because if you don't defend us, we don't know where we could end up."
Voting began on Friday in four Ukrainian regions largely held by Russian forces, including separatists, beginning a plan by Putin to annex much of Ukraine.
(Reporting by Alvise Armellini; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Crispian Balmer)
Silvio Berlusconi
Italian politician and media tycoon
Wladimir Putin
President of Russia

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