Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was “pushed” to invade Ukraine, remarks that drew fierce criticism days before an election.
Mr. Berlusconi, 85, is running in a coalition on the right that is favored in Sunday’s vote and his allies have praised the policies of controversial European leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Berlusconi had not seemed particularly supportive of his longtime friend, Mr. Putin.
But in an appearance on an evening talk show on Thursday, Mr. Berlusconi said, “Putin was pushed by the Russian people, by his party, by his ministers to come up with this special operation” — using the Russian leader’s preferred euphemism for the war.
Mr. Berlusconi said that Russian forces were supposed to enter Ukraine and reach the capital, Kyiv, in a week in order to overturn the government and put “decent people” in power before returning to Russia.
“But they encountered unexpected and unpredictable resistance from the Ukrainian troops,” he said, noting that Western nations had provided weapons to Ukraine.
“I haven’t even understood why Russian troops spread around Ukraine while in my mind they should have only stuck around Kyiv,” he said calmly.
With Italy due to vote on Sunday in national elections, political condemnation of Mr. Berlusconi’s perceived defense of Mr. Putin was swift.
Enrico Letta, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, called Mr. Berlusconi’s words “scandalous and very serious.”
“If on Sunday night the result is favorable to the right, the happiest person would be Putin,” Mr. Letta told Italy’s national broadcaster, RAI.
Mr. Berlusconi, who wore furry hats with Mr. Putin in his dacha in Sochi, has condemned the violence in Ukraine but been reluctant to directly critique his old friend since the invasion in late February.
After his remarks caused an uproar on Friday, Mr. Berlusconi wrote on Twitter that his words had been taken out of context. He said that his position — and that of his party, Forza Italia — was “with the European Union and NATO.”
Italy’s current government has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, supported Ukraine’s application to join the European Union and shipped arms to the country.
Nationalist political leaders, however, have tended to echo Kremlin lines on the war. Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy who is widely expected to become the next prime minister, has been a consistent and outspoken supporter of Ukraine throughout the war — in part to reassure an international audience that she is a credible and acceptable option.