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Hungary's Orbán Meets Putin for Talks in Moscow in a Rare Visit by a European Leader
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By Associated Press
Published 2 weeks ago on
July 5, 2024

In a rare move, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, sparking controversy among European leaders and officials. (AP/Valeriy Sharifulin)

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MOSCOW — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited Moscow on Friday for a rare meeting by a European leader with Russian President Vladimir Putin and discussed peace proposals for Ukraine, which triggered condemnation from Kyiv and some European leaders and officials.

Orbán’s visit comes only days after he made a similar unannounced trip to Ukraine, where he met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and proposed that Ukraine consider agreeing to an immediate cease-fire with Russia.

“The number of countries that can talk to both warring sides is diminishing,” Orbán said. “Hungary is slowly becoming the only country in Europe that can speak to everyone.”

Hungary assumed the rotating presidency of the EU at the beginning of July and, in comments at the beginning of their meeting that were televised, Putin suggested that Orbán had come to Moscow as a representative of the European Council. Several European officials — including the leaders of Germany, Denmark and Estonia — dismissed that suggestion and said Orbán had no mandate for anything beyond a discussion about bilateral relations.

Orbán’s Stance on Ukraine

The Hungarian prime minister, widely seen as having the warmest relations with Vladimir Putin among all European Union leaders, has routinely blocked, delayed or watered down EU efforts to assist Kyiv and impose sanctions on Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. He has long argued for a cessation of hostilities in Ukraine but without outlining what that might mean for the country’s territorial integrity or future security.

That posture has frustrated Hungary’s EU and NATO allies, which have broadly considered Russia’s actions as a breach of international law and a threat to the security of countries in Eastern Europe.

Orbán said he told Putin that “Europe needs peace,” adding that he asked Putin for his thoughts on existing peace plans and whether he believed a cease-fire could precede any potential peace talks.

In a statement after their meeting, Putin repeated a previous demand that Ukraine withdraw its troops from the four regions that Russia claims to have annexed in 2022 as a condition for peace talks. Ukraine and its Western allies have rejected that demand, suggesting it is akin to asking Ukraine to withdraw from Ukrainian territory.

Putin also emphasized that Russia wouldn’t accept any cease-fire or temporary break in hostilities that would allow Ukraine “to recoup losses, regroup and rearm.”

Reactions to Orbán’s Visit

The two leaders also discussed bilateral relations, and Putin said they exchanged views on the current state of Russia-EU relations which are “now at their lowest point.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Orbán’s decision to visit Moscow was made “without approval or coordination” with Kyiv. It added that “the principle of ‘no agreements on Ukraine without Ukraine’ remains inviolable for our country” and called on all states to strictly adhere to it.

Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the visit to Moscow was Orbán’s idea and was only agreed to on Wednesday, according to the Russian state news agency Tass. Peskov added that Moscow valued Orbán’s “strong, clear and consistent course” aimed at trying to resolve the conflict.

European officials and leaders have heavily criticized Orbán’s visit to Moscow, something only one other European leader has done since the start of the conflict.

“This is about appeasement. It’s not about peace,” European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said.

Hungary at the beginning of the month took over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council, a largely formal role that can be used to shape the bloc’s policy agenda. Orbán has said he wants to use the presidency to advocate for an end to the fighting in Ukraine.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said in a statement that Orbán’s visit to Moscow “takes place, exclusively, in the framework of the bilateral relations between Hungary and Russia.”

“Prime Minister Orbán has not received any mandate from the EU Council to visit Moscow,” Borrell said, adding that his “position excludes official contacts between the EU and President Putin. The Hungarian Prime Minister is thus not representing the EU in any form.”

He noted that Putin has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and an arrest warrant released for his role in relation to the forced deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Orbán informed him in advance about his travel to Moscow but that he “is not representing NATO at these meetings.”

Kaja Kallas, the outgoing Estonian prime minister nominated to become the next EU foreign policy chief, accused Orbán of “exploiting” the presidency and said the Hungarian leader is trying “to sow confusion.”

“The EU is united, clearly behind Ukraine and against Russian aggression,” Kallas, a staunch supporter of Ukraine, wrote Friday on the social media platform X.

In an email on Friday, Orbán’s press chief, Bertalan Havasi, said the Hungarian leader’s trip comes “as part of his peace mission” — reflecting the image of a peacemaker that the populist leader has cultivated since Putin sent his troops into Ukraine in February 2022. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó also joined the trip to Moscow, according to a post on his Facebook page.

Speaking to Hungarian state radio before departing Friday morning, Orbán said he was aware that his country’s presidency of the EU “does not entitle us to negotiate on behalf of anyone.”

Without mentioning reports of his planned trip to Moscow, he said his trip earlier this week to Kyiv did not “need a mandate, because I do not represent anything. The only thing I do is go to those places where there is a war or the threat of war that has negative consequences for Europe and Hungary as well.”

Other EU officials have expressed dismay that Orbán undertook the trip unilaterally and without the approval of the bloc’s member states.

European Council President Charles Michel on Thursday said on the social media platform X that “the EU rotating presidency has no mandate to engage with Russia on behalf of the EU.”

“The European Council is clear: Russia is the aggressor, Ukraine is the victim. No discussions about Ukraine can take place without Ukraine,” Michel wrote.

Orbán is the first European leader to visit Russia and sit down for talks with Putin since Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer visited Moscow in April 2022, just weeks after Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine. During that visit he said he raised the issue of crimes allegedly committed in Ukraine by Russian forces.

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