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Orbán shakes hands with Putin in Moscow amid EU uproar

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán arrived in Moscow on Friday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a visit roundly condemned by European leaders.

Russian state media posted a video of Orbán in the Kremlin, shaking hands with the Russian leader who has been a pariah to most of the EU since launching his full-scale invasion in February 2022. Putin told Orbán: “I’m at your disposal.”

The Moscow trip is part of a “peace mission,” Orbán tweeted Friday morning, and follows a surprise visit to Kyiv on Tuesday, where the Hungarian leader met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The Putin-Orbán meeting comes just days after Hungary took over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, and has caused an uproar among European politicians, who insist Orbán has no authorization from the bloc’s governments to negotiate. Orbán has long been Putin’s most reliable ally in the EU, hampering efforts to provide support to Kyiv and echoing Moscow’s talking points around its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“The EU rotating presidency has no mandate to engage with Russia on behalf of the EU,” European Council President Charles Michel wrote on X Thursday. “No discussions about Ukraine can take place without Ukraine.”

Appeasement will not stop Putin,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on social media. The Commission said it was not informed of Orbán’s trip ahead of time.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said on Friday 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. “The EU position on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is reflected in many European Council conclusions. That position excludes official contacts between the EU and President Putin. The Hungarian prime minister is thus not representing the EU in any form,” Borrell added.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who has been nominated to be the EU’s next chief diplomat, said Orbán “in no way represents the EU or the EU’s positions. He is exploiting the EU presidency position to sow confusion,” she added.

Orbán appeared to acknowledge that he has no authority to negotiate. 

“What I’m doing may look like a negotiation format because we sit behind a table and discuss issues, but we don’t negotiate,” he said in an interview with Hungarian state radio Friday morning. “That’s why I don’t even need a mandate because I don’t represent anything.”

“I do one thing: I go to the places where there is a threat of war or a war that has negative consequences for Europe and Hungary, and I clarify the facts. That’s why I ask questions: for example, I asked President Zelenskyy three or four important questions, what he thinks about them so that we can understand his intentions, where are his red lines, the borderline, as far as he can go for the sake of peace,” Orbán said in the interview.

“If we don’t measure this, if we don’t know this exactly, and if we sit in Brussels, then we cannot get closer to peace because peace will not come by itself,” Orbán said. “If we think that events are taking place and that this will suddenly lead to peace, then we misunderstand the natural history of war. There will be peace when someone does it.”

A Ukrainian official in the presidential office in Kyiv said Tuesday’s meeting between Orbán and Zelenskyy was “not bad.” The Ukrainians listened to the Hungarian leader, and Orbán heard Zelenskyy’s arguments, said the official, who was granted anonymity to talk candidly. But Kyiv did not give any messages to be passed to Moscow, the official added.

“Orbán has not received any message from us and we have not asked for anything; he decides himself where to go,” the official in Kyiv said. “It is important for us that pan-European issues and bilateral matters between us are resolved.”

Putin certainly cast his visitor in that role of Brussels representative, telling Orbán: “I count on you to share your position, that of the EU partners.” Putin said he was prepared to discuss “the nuances” of the Ukraine war with the Hungarian leader.

A European Commission spokesperson said Orbán’s meeting with Putin “undermines unity and determination we need to show for the war to end.” The trip to the Kremlin “puts into question the European Commission visit to Hungary foreseen after the summer break,” the spokesperson added.

It’s Orbán’s first trip to Moscow since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 — but it isn’t his first meeting with Putin since then: the two leaders spoke in China last October.

In the Kremlin Friday, Orbán recalled that the two leaders had met at least 10 times before, but that this occasion was “more special” than the earlier ones. “I am very grateful that even in these difficult circumstances you agreed to receive me,” Orbán said.

Orbán added that Hungary would “soon” be the only EU country that could talk to “all” sides in the Ukraine-Russia war, a comment that elicited a smile from Putin.

Veronika Melkozerova, Eva Hartog and Elena Giordano contributed reporting.

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