Russian president Vladimir Putin appeared to be having a great time when he and the disgraced former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi popped a 240-year-old bottle of Spanish wine in Crimea this week.
During a visit to what is claimed to be the biggest wine collection in the world at the Massandra winery, Mr Putin and his longtime friend tried a 1775 Jeres de la Frontera that was brought to Crimea by Count Mikhail Vorontsov, during the reign of Catherine the Great.
But the prosecutor general of the former Crimean government, which has been operating in exile since Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, didn't find the VIP degustation amusing.
He opened a criminal case for large scale theft over the incident, estimating the loss at 2 million hryvnia, or about €80,000, the Centre of Journalistic Investigations reported.
Mr Berlusconi had joined Mr Putin in Crimea for a day of sightseeing, visiting a historic church and laying flowers at a monument to Sicilian soldiers who fought in the Crimean war. State television showed the pair walking through the wine cellars and asking questions as they were shown especially valued bottles from the collection.
In the footage, Mr Berlusconi is seen picking up a 1891 vintage and asking “Can we drink them?”The two leaders apparently had such a good time at the winery that Mr Putin even joined in for an uncharacteristically lighthearted photo, raising his hands above his head with Mr Berlusconi and the winery employees. After the visit, Ukraine’s national security council issued a decree banning Mr Berlusconi from the country for three years for the “security of our government”.
Prince Lev Golitsyn started the first winery in Crimea in 1894, and since then its wines have been celebrated in the Soviet Union and Russia. The Massandra wine cellars hold about 500,000 bottles, including 5 bottles of the 1775 Jeres de la Frontera. Director Yanina Pavlenko was reportedly the one who uncorked the bottle for Mr Putin and Mr Berlusconi.
The Kremlin has not commented on the criminal case, but it’s not clear how the Ukrainian authorities could hope to bring Mr Pavlenko, Mr Berlusconi or Mr Putin to account.
The Ukraine foreign ministry said Mr Berlusconi's visit was contradicting the European Union's condemnation of the annexation of Crimea. Berlusconi last visited Mr Putin in June, when the two fished and relaxed at a spa complex in the Altai mountains in Siberia.