Orban Meets Putin as EU Leaders Accuse Him of Damaging Bloc

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on a self-styled “peace mission” on Friday, triggering condemnation from European Union leaders who said he had no mandate to represent the bloc.

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The Hungarian leader, who visited Kyiv a day after he took over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency on July 1, said ahead of the meeting that he had no intention of representing the 27-member bloc.

But speaking alongside the Russian leader after talks, he said he regarded the EU presidency as part of his mission and presented himself as uniquely positioned to mediate. The Kremlin said after the talks that there was no progress on Ukraine, according to the state-run Tass news service, citing Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

“I’ve seen that the positions are far apart and the number of steps leading to an end to the war and to peace is great,” Orban told reporters afterward. For his part, Putin expressed gratitude for the visit, though said that Orban had reiterated “Western views” that are well known to the Kremlin.

The Russian leader reinforced Russia’s position on a possible settlement that he laid out in a speech to the Russian Foreign Ministry last month, in which he demanded Kyiv withdraw its forces from four regions partially occupied by his troops and abandon its goal of joining NATO.

Orban’s journey was initiated by Budapest, according to Peskov. Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said that the Hungarian leader didn’t bring a message from Zelenskiy, Tass reported.

But the trip to the Russian capital succeeded in provoking a sharp response from the rest of the EU, which had already been worried about how Hungary would approach its presidency. “Appeasement will not stop Putin,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a post on X after Orban landed.

Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nauseda, went further. “If you truly seek peace, you don’t shake hands with a bloody dictator, you put all your efforts to support #Ukraine,” he said on X.

Orban used his Kyiv visit — his first since the Russian invasion began in 2022 — to pitch a cease-fire deal to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Although the Ukrainian leader lauded the trip as a “good signal” from Budapest, he told Bloomberg Television on Wednesday that a cease-fire proposal was a non-starter for Kyiv.

Orban, who has provoked ire from European counterparts for blocking aid at times to Ukraine and maintaining his ties with Moscow, said after the meeting with Zelenskiy that he was preparing a report for EU leaders.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters that Orban gave him no advance notice about his plan to visit Russia. “The European Council is represented by Charles Michel in terms of foreign policy — and not Hungary,” he said, adding: “Ukraine can rely on our support.”

European Council President Charles Michel issued a public warning late Thursday to make clear that Orban didn’t speak for Brussels after he was unable to reach Hungarian officials or confirm the trip, according to a person familiar with the matter who was granted anonymity to speak about sensitive conversations.

Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said the trip showed “disregard for the duties of the EU Presidency and undermines interests of the European Union.”

Sharp Rebuke

Michael Roth, a member of Scholz’s Social Democrats and the chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, called on the Hungarian leader to resign his chairmanship.

“It is a scandal that Orban is shamefully abusing the EU Council Presidency and traveling to Kremlin without a mandate,” Roth said on X. “He is undermining the core principles of EU foreign policy. Either the Hungarian government respects its current role in the EU or it should resign as Chair.”

The Hungarian leader, who has prized his relations with Putin and campaigned in last month’s European Parliament election as a harbinger of peace, last visited Moscow the month Putin launched the invasion. He most recently met the Russian president in Beijing last October.

Orban was scheduled to arrive in Azerbaijan, where he will participate in an informal meeting of the Organization of Turkic States on Friday and Saturday.

Even before taking the rotating presidency this month, Orban antagonized peers with his choice of slogan for Hungary’s six-month stint: “Make Europe Great Again.” The phrase was a nod to the mantra of former US President Donald Trump, whom Orban has praised.

--With assistance from Alberto Nardelli, Michael Nienaber and Henry Meyer.

(Updates with Orban, Putin comments from third paragraph.)

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