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European support for Ukraine ‘remains strong’ after Berlusconi defends Putin

Silvio Berlusconi defended Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (PA)
Silvio Berlusconi defended Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (PA)

European support for Ukraine “remains strong”, western officials have said, after former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi defended Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

Mr Berlusconi told Italian broadcasters on Thursday that Mr Putin only wished to replace Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with a government of “decent people”.

His right-wing party Forza Italia, in a coalition with Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy and League leader Matteo Salvini, is expected to form the Italian government after Sunday’s election.

Both Mr Salvini and Ms Meloni have denied receiving funding from Russia after the Italian election campaign was rocked by the release of a US intelligence report into Russian funding of foreign political parties.

On how the events in Italy could affect solidarity in Europe over Ukraine, western officials said on Friday that wider support has “strengthened” in recent days.

“At this stage, European and wider support for Ukraine remains strong,” one official said.

Referencing statements leaders made at the UN General Assembly in New York this week, the official said countries have been “clear” on their support for Ukraine and the illegitimacy of sham referenda Russia intends to hold in captured southern regions.

They added: “In fact, Russia’s escalations in nuclear rhetoric, in taking action during the UN General Assembly, which is quite clearly contrary to the UN Charter, in implementing the threats to cut European energy and increasing evidence of atrocities in areas where they’ve occupied, I think that we have seen European solidarity strengthened rather than the reverse.”

“I exclude Silvio Berlusconi from that comment,” the official said, but added that they had not heard his remarks themselves.

Western officials also said Mr Putin’s recent announcements of referenda and partial mobilisation have “not changed anything in terms of the UK’s policy response”.

It comes as Prime Minister Liz Truss committed the UK to sustain military support at similar levels through 2023.

The officials also said Russia’s announcements of partial mobilisation are likely to cause political problems in Moscow, have the potential to dent support for the war across Russian society and contribute to the “very poor morale” among troops.

The move follows Ukraine’s rapid advance against Russian forces in the north of the country.