Like a Bad Opera, Berlusconi and Zelensky Spar Over War Scars

The Ukrainian president ‘cannot be the only custodian of peace,’ another former Italian leader says.

Johanna Geron, pool via AP, file
President Zelenskyy speaks with Italy's prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, during an EU summit at Brussels on February 9, 2023. Johanna Geron, pool via AP, file

There are stranger paradoxes, but it took an 86-year-old Italian billionaire politician to make Italy the poster child of Europe’s weariness with the year-old war in Ukraine. The visit of the energetic Italian premier, Giorgia Meloni, to Kyiv this week was largely symbolic and devoid of drama, but the elephant in the room was a former four-time Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

The media tycoon’s enduring friendship with Vladimir Putin has put him at continual odds with President Zelensky, who like most European leaders today sees the Russian president as the principal author of the invasion. Yet to Ms. Meloni’s embarrassment, Mr. Berlusconi’s contrarian stance haunted her — and Mr. Zelensky showed once again that he isn’t afraid of ghosts. 

In response to a reporter’s question about comments that Mr. Berlusconi made earlier this month that put the blame on Mr. Zelensky for instigating the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian president replied, “I believe that Berlusconi’s house has never been bombed, tanks have never arrived in his garden, no one has killed his relatives, he never had to pack his bags at 3AM to escape and, all this thanks to the brotherly love of Russia.”

Striking a slightly softer tone to differentiate Mr. Berlusconi from the Italian public, Mr. Zelensky added, “I wish peace to all Italian families, even to those who don’t support us, but ours is a great tragedy that must be understood.”

Italians by and large do understand the predicament in which Ukrainians have found themselves because of the war, and a new defense support package between Italy and Ukraine signed off on by Ms. Meloni and Mr. Zelensky at Kyiv attests to that. 

“All the defense equipment for Ukraine provided by Italy, including air defense, is what really saves the lives of our people, our families, our children and gives security to our cities,” Mr. Zelensky said, with Ms. Meloni standing at a podium nearby.  

Back at Rome, Ms. Meloni insisted that Mr. Zelensky “did not want to light fuses.”

Mr. Berlusconi did not exactly agree. The Milanese newspaper Corriere della Serra reported that the Forza Italia party leader said he felt “offended” and privately told his supporters, “It’s not true that I don’t know about war: I too was displaced as a kid. I lived through the horrors of war.”  

According to that newspaper, some members of Mr. Berlusconi’s party were for their part unhappy with what they viewed as Ms. Meloni’s tepid response to Mr. Zelensky’s impromptu barbs. They were also reportedly rankled by the Ukrainian leader’s comment that “the real problem is the approach of the Italian society that gave that leader a mandate.”

All this thorny repartee would matter much less if Mr. Berlusconi didn’t sit in a coalition government with Ms. Meloni, but he does. By dint of longevity and lucre — Forbes estimates his net worth at about $8 billion — he is still the ultimate kingmaker in contemporary Italian politics. That could go some way toward explaining how another former premier and current head of the Five Star Movement party, Giuseppe Conte, waded into the fray — with the terse observation that “Zelensky cannot be the only custodian of peace,” as La Stampa reported.

No one in Italy forgets that Matteo Salvini of the Northern League party (also part of Ms. Meloni’s coalition) is another enthusiast of the Russian president; a now-infamous photograph shows him wearing a Putin T-shirt in Red Square. 

The leader of the League faction in the Italian senate, Massimiliano Romeo, has taken a stance less brazen than Messrs. Berlusconi and Salvini, but one in stark contrast to anything heard these days at Warsaw or, for that matter, Westminster. 

“The League supports the government’s line that Ukraine is an invaded country and, therefore, Putin will not escape the accusation of being the one who provoked this war and who invaded Ukraine,” Mr. Romeo said this week. “But be careful and cautious not to send weapons that drag the Atlantic alliance into a direct conflict with Russia. What does it mean? It means starting nuclear war,” he added.

“Let’s use reason and use war propaganda less. Long-range missiles, F16 fighters, and whatnot — with this type of weapon there is the risk of an accident from which there is no turning back. So, you have to try to avoid it,” Mr. Romeo said.

On Thursday Italian newspapers were reporting that Mr. Berlusconi said that his party’s support for Ukraine “is not in question,” but he also insisted that responsibilities are “on both sides.”

Mr. Romeo says he backs Ms. Meloni’s suggestion of hosting a conference in Italy about post-war reconstruction, but that it would be predicated on a “new phase” of the war and a durable ceasefire. 

One year after the invasion, that is something that few see in the forecast. As the AP reported, “on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion that has killed tens of thousands and reduced cities to ruins, both sides are preparing for a potentially even more disastrous phase that lies ahead.”

There is no doubt that Mr. Berlusconi, for all his forgivable flamboyance, risks undercutting Ms. Meloni’s influence on a crowded global stage. As long as Il Cavaliere insists on liberally reimagining the past while Mr. Zelensky eyes a very uncertain future, the curtain will not soon be falling on that unsavory bit of opera, either.

The New York Sun

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