Orban visits Zelensky in Ukraine

KYIV – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the EU’s most vocal critic of military aid to Ukraine, arrived in Kyiv on Tuesday in his first visit since Russia’s invasion two years ago.

His meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky came a day after Hungary assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and was a rare gesture in a fraught relationship between the neighboring leaders.

While the rotating presidency brings little power, it gives Orban and his government a platform — one he can use to amplify Europe’s far-right views and undermine Ukraine’s call for more support.

During his visit on Tuesday, Orban told Zelensky that the war was “a very important issue for Europe”.

Orban has repeatedly blocked or weakened European efforts to provide security aid to Ukraine, much to Zelensky’s frustration. Hungary, despite being a member of NATO, does not allow the transfer of donated Western weapons to Ukraine through the countries’ shared border.

Despite several attempts by Orbán to freeze EU aid, Ukrainian officials were pleased that Hungary attended a peace conference organized by Ukraine in Switzerland last month. Budapest eventually backed a joint statement drawn up by participating countries that called for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” to be the basis of any peace deal. Russia was not invited to the summit and dismissed it as pointless.

But on Tuesday, Orban suggested that Ukraine should agree to a ceasefire with Russia as part of an effort to start negotiations to end the fighting, which Moscow controls over a fifth of Ukraine.

While Russia’s troops are still occupying Ukraine, Kiev has not agreed to a 10-point peace plan that asks countries to support a ceasefire. Officials have said such a move would give Moscow an opportunity to rearm and renew its offensive aimed at seizing Ukrainian territory.

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“I said [Zelensky] “His initiatives require a lot of time because of the rules of international diplomacy,” Orban said on Tuesday. He told Zelensky “to consider whether we can do things a little differently – to cease fire and negotiate with Russia, because a ceasefire will speed up these negotiations.”

Hungary’s takeover of the EU Council presidency provided a “good pretext” for a meeting between Orban and Zelensky, said Zsuzsanna Végh, an analyst specializing in Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based think tank. Tank.

“For Orban, this visit will help portray him as a more creative actor and build his image as an advocate for peace,” Wake said. But, he added, “Orbán’s position or demand toward Zelensky — calling for a ceasefire before peace talks — continues to reflect a disregard for Kiev’s views.”

In comments after the meeting, Zelensky ignored Orban’s suggestion of a ceasefire. He said Hungary will open its first Ukrainian-language school for refugees living there. “The subject of our dialogue on all issues today will become the basis for a new bilateral document between our states,” Zelensky said.

Budapest says Kyiv does not guarantee the rights of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s western Zakarpattia region. Orban’s government has put forward a list of 11 conditions on the legal protection of minorities before Ukraine agrees to EU membership.

Although assuming the EU’s rotating presidency would involve limited tenure, some EU lawmakers have expressed concern that Hungary’s pro-Russian record makes it unfit for the role. Orban also opposed EU sanctions on Russia, as well as blocking aid to Ukraine. He is one of the only Western leaders to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the war began.

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Zelensky wrote in X on Monday that he wished Hungary “to be effective in promoting our shared European values, goals and interests.”

“As it moves forward on its path to the EU, Ukraine is ready to contribute to these efforts and strengthen our Europe,” Zelensky said.

Although Orban’s stances on Ukraine and Russia’s invasion have made him an outlier in the EU, he could gain allies and influence as hard-line and far-right parties win in recent elections shake up Europe’s establishment.

In France, a strong showing by Marine Le Pen’s far-right party prompted President Emmanuel Macron to dissolve parliament and call for snap elections, which was backed off when the far-right ended Sunday in the first round of voting.

Macron has been particularly vocal about increasing European support for Kyiv, and has said the West should not rule out troop landings in Ukraine. Le Pen has criticized Macron’s stance.

Andreas Bok, an expert on Hungarian foreign policy, said the recent victory of far-right parties in the European Parliament elections and in the first round of the French parliamentary elections would boost Orbán’s hopes of carrying out his agenda.

Brady reports from Berlin. Serhiy Morkunov in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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