What do you get a former Italian prime minister who has everything when his birthday rolls around? In Silvio Berlusconi's case, his old pal Vladimir Putin figured nearly two dozen bottles of hard liquor would do the trick. Unfortunately, the European Commission has determined that thoughtful gift breaches sanctions imposed due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, reports Reuters. "For my birthday he sent me 20 bottles of vodka and a very sweet letter," Berlusconi recently noted in a lawmakers session, in audio leaked Tuesday to the LaPresse news agency. The AP reports that Berlusconi, whose friendship with Putin stretches back years, revealed the present for his 86th birthday as he also noted that he'd rekindled ties with the Russian leader.
"I have reconnected with President Putin—a little, a lot," Berlusconi said, adding that he sent back to Putin "a similarly sweet letter" and 20 bottles of sparkling Italian red wine. He went on to note that he considers Putin a "man of peace," and that he considers himself Putin's No. 1 friend among the Russian head of state's "five true friends," per France 24. A commission spokesperson says in a statement that an EU sanctions package put into place in April includes spirits like vodka on its banned-items list, even if they're gifts. The rep adds, however, that it's an individual EU state's call on whether to enforce the sanctions. Reuters notes it's not clear if Italian authorities will do so. After the audio leak, Berlusconi's office tried to backpedal with what France 24 calls a "clumsy denial," noting the former PM "told an old story to lawmakers about an episode that occurred years ago."
LaPresse also released a second recording, apparently from the same recent session, that aired Berlusconi's disdain for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and praise for Putin's original "special operation" that was only supposed to have lasted a couple of weeks to install a "decent, sensible" government in Kyiv. One person who apparently wasn't happy with Berlusconi's remarks: new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who reportedly slipped out a back door during the session where Berlusconi made his comments. In a statement Wednesday, she noted, "Italy, with its head high, is part of Europe and the Atlantic alliance. Whoever doesn't agree with this cornerstone cannot be part of the government." Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party is the junior party in Meloni's right-wing coalition, which has backed Ukraine and the EU over the invasion. (Read more Silvio Berlusconi stories.)