Berlusconi’s propaganda in Italy over the war in Ukraine: fact-checking

According to the leader of the Italian party Forza Italia, former Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, Ukraine was responsible for the Russian war of agression, but his claims are largely disproved by the facts. And these fact are known to the Italians, the Italian media PagellaPolitica writes.

On October 19, the LaPresse news agency published an audio, secretly recorded during a Forza Italia assembly in the House, in which Silvio Berlusconi can be heard making his own reconstruction of responsibility for the war in Ukraine. In a nutshell: according to the former Prime Minister, the conflict arose because of Ukraine and its President Volodymyr Zelensky, while Russian President Vladimir Putin was forced into the war against his will. The following day, in an interview with Corriere della Sera, the Forza Italia leader defended himself against the criticism that had come in recent hours, saying he did not want to give “any absolute interpretation to the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation.”

Already a few days before the September 25 elections, a guest on Porta a Porta on Rai1, Berlusconi had made similar statements, saying that Putin’s goal was to replace Zelensky with “good people,” an expression also used in the audio published by LaPresse.

What is true and false in the reconstruction made by the leader of Forza Italia? We have verified the words of Berlusconi, who said a number of things that are unfounded.

Did Ukraine violate the Minsk agreements?

“2014, in Minsk, Belarus, an agreement is signed between Ukraine and the two newly formed Donbas republics for a peace agreement, with no one attacking the other. Ukraine throws this treaty to hell a year later and starts attacking the borders of the two republics.”

This reconstruction is false. An initial cease-fire agreement was signed in Minsk, Belarus, in September 2014, to stop the violence that erupted in April of that year in the Ukrainian Donbass region, after pro-Russian separatists stormed institutional offices in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The truce had not lasted, however, and clashes and violence, on both sides, had resumed shortly thereafter.

After more months of violence, a second ceasefire agreement was reached again in Minsk in February 2015. Here, among other things, Russia and Ukraine agreed that the pro-Russian separatist regions would return to full Ukrainian control and that Ukraine would pass constitutional reform to grant them special status. These two conditions never came to pass.

In general, it is untrue, contrary to Berlusconi’s statement, that this “peace agreement” was violated by Ukraine’s decision to attack the borders of the two self-proclaimed and not recognised separatist republics. As can be read in several reports (here for example, that of the 2017 human rights NGO Human rights watch) the agreements made in Minsk in 2015 led to a general reduction in hostilities and violence, although frequent ceasefire violations were recorded on both sides.

According to the United Nations, civilian deaths fell from 2,084 in 2014 to 955 in 2015 and 112 in 2016. The number of battle deaths, both military and civilian, also fell between 2014 and 2015, according to data from the Upssala conflict data program, from the University of the Swedish city of the same name. Thereafter, until 2022, the level of armed confrontation in the Donbas remained on a lower intensity.

Generally, when people talk about the failure to comply with the Minsk agreements, they mean, on the one hand, Ukraine’s failure to pass a constitutional reform that would grant strong autonomy to the separatist regions and, on the other hand, Russia’s failure to return control over the separatist territories to the Ukrainian government.

In contrast to Berlusconi’s statement about a Ukrainian attack on the borders, we can say that on a general level the truce has basically held, with a drastic drop in violence and deaths between 2015 and 2022, although it is true that there have been ceasefire violations on both sides.

Deaths toll in pro-Russia separatist regions

“The two republics suffer casualties among the military that reach, I am told, 5-6-7 thousand deaths“, Berlusconi said.

The figure cited by Berlusconi is correct. According to data from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, between April 2014 and December 2021 there were a total of about 14,000 casualties in the Donbass conflict: about 3,400 civilians, about 4,400 Ukrainian military personnel and about 6,500 members of pro-Russian militias.

Has Zelensky tripled the attacks on the Donbass?

“Here comes Zelensky: tripling attacks on the two republics”, Berlusconi said.

This accusation is baseless. Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine in May 2019, and since the beginning of his term he has been trying to negotiate a diplomatic solution for the Donbass with Russia, following the so-called “Steinmeier Formula” (named after German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier). To end the violence, this strategy included local elections in the occupied regions of the Donbass and the recognition of their special autonomy.

While these negotiating attempts were proceeding, it is not true that Ukrainian attacks on the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, which are part of the Donbass region, have tripled, as Berlusconi said. The data on civilian deaths and battle deaths, both military and civilian, mentioned above indicate that from May 2019 to February 2022 there has been no increase in attacks, as there has been a decline from previous years.

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the largest intergovernmental regional security organization for peace promotion, ceasefire violations and violence in general decreased in 2019 compared to 2018. The OSCE also reported a decrease in violations and violence in 2020 and 2021.

To recap: contrary to what Berlusconi said, since Zelensky became president of Ukraine in May 2019, until the invasion by Russia in February 2022, violence in the Donbass had decreased compared to before.

Almost unverifiable propaganda

In addition to these statements, Berlusconi also made others that are unverifiable or at least not very credible. Among other things, the Forza Italia leader said, for example, that Russian President Vladimir Putin was basically forced into a war that he did not want, in order to establish “a government already chosen by the Ukrainian minority of decent, common-sense people.”

Berlusconi also added that after the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military “was faced with an unforeseen and unpredictable situation of resistance from the Ukrainians, who began from the third day to receive money and weapons from the West.” It can be seen here that Western military aid to Ukraine did not begin “from the third day” after the invasion by Russia, but years before, and grew after the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbass in 2014.

Nor is the part of Berlusconi’s speech in which he says Putin thought he would reach the Ukrainian capital Kyiv “in a week” and “depose the current government in a short time” verifiable. The speech with which Putin on Feb. 24 actually announced the invasion of Ukraine would seem to confirm this, but in war, secret documents are often more valuable than public statements. In any case, it seems undeniable that something in Putin’s plans did not work and that Russia was, and is, in an “unforeseen and unpredictable” situation, as Berlusconi said.

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