Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visits Ukraine

For months he stood alone in blocking a $52 billion European aid package for Ukraine, but then he meekly bowed. He refused to accept Sweden as a new member of NATO for more than a year, before bowing to pressure from larger countries and giving his unconditional assent.

The same pattern was repeated on Tuesday, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made a surprise visit to Kiev to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, following a path taken more than two years ago by other European leaders but previously eschewed by Orbán.

Hungarian officials have described the previously unannounced trip as an effort to promote “peace,” a Hungarian euphemism for a deal based on Ukrainian capitulation to Russian demands. Many observers have instead seen it more as a move by Mr. Orban to try to end his isolation of Ukraine on the European stage.

Zsomber Zeold, a former Hungarian diplomat and foreign policy expert in Budapest, said the visit was “a complete surprise to me and many others,” given that Mr. Orban has maintained such a hostile stance toward Ukraine for so long. “The most likely explanation,” Mr. Zeold said, is that “he wants to build some kind of credibility within the European Union as not just a unilateral, pro-Russian actor.”

Hungary took over the rotating presidency of the European Union this week, vowing to “make Europe great again.” But the presidency is largely a clerical position, and Mr Orban’s oft-repeated promise to “take over Brussels” was instead based on a calculation that last month’s European Parliament elections would make Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party a powerful new center of gravity for like-minded nationalist forces in the continental body.

This hope, however, has so far been stymied by Orbán's reputation as the European bloc's most Kremlin-friendly leader, a position with which only a few fringe figures want to be associated.

Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank that often criticizes the Hungarian leader, described Orban’s trip to Kiev as a “wise, unexpected surprise that may improve his chances of moving closer to the EU mainstream” and forging an alliance with conservatives like Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister. While Meloni agrees with Orban on the need to severely limit immigration and protect national sovereignty, she has been put off by his pro-Kremlin stance on Ukraine.

“He knows that visiting Zelensky is code for being a ‘club member,’ and he would like to send a strong message to EU leaders: he is in the club even if he often plays the outsider,” Kreko said.

When Hungary announced last week the formation of a new right-wing alliance in the European Parliament called Patriots for Europe, Mr Orban declared that it was the beginning of a “new era” of “peace, security and development” instead of “war, migration and stagnation” that “will change European politics”.

But the new Hungarian-led legislative alliance, which Mr. Orban has predicted “will soon be the strongest right-wing political group in Europe,” has managed to attract only two small populist parties from Austria and the Czech Republic. A small right-wing party in Portugal has since said it will also join. Another possible addition is the far-right Italian party of Matteo Salvini, an avowed fan of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who is struggling to overcome a disappointing showing in European elections in June.

So far, all of Europe’s most powerful nationalist parties have stayed away, reducing the chances of Orbán becoming a central figure on the rising populist right.

Law and Justice, the former ruling party in Poland, which has a much larger economy, army and population than Hungary, shares Mr Orban’s hostility to immigration and Brussels bureaucracy. But it has refused to join the new alliance, largely because of Hungary’s stance on the war in Ukraine.

Ms Meloni, an Italian, also showed no interest in allying herself with Hungary in the European Parliament and decided to remain loyal to her group in the assembly.

By traveling to Ukraine, Mr. Orbán “is trying to get out of the political no-man’s land in the EU, and showing a more open approach toward Kiev would be key in that regard,” said Edit Zgut-Przybylska, an associate professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences who has written extensively on Russian influence in Hungary.

Speaking in Kiev on Tuesday, Mr Orban repeated his calls for “peace” but avoided any suggestion that achieving it depended on Ukraine’s withdrawal. Hungary’s MTI news agency said Mr Orban had called for a “time-bound ceasefire that would provide an opportunity to speed up peace talks.”

Unian, a Ukrainian news agency, quoted Mr. Orban as saying “peace is an important issue. The war you are living in now has a very intense effect on the security of Europe.” He made no public criticism of Mr. Zelensky over the treatment of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority, previously a major bone of contention often raised by Mr. Orban, and instead thanked Mr. Zelensky for listening to his views on a possible ceasefire.

Professor Zgut-Przybylska said Mr Orbán's trip “does not mean the Hungarian government will make a political U-turn”. On the contrary, it is part of what the prime minister himself has described as Hungary's “peacock dance”: a policy of feathers fluttering from one side to the other depending on the moment.

“Orbán has been doing this ‘peacock’ dance for a decade,” he said, “and Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia will remain stronger than ever.”

Russia, perhaps worried about losing its most reliable friend in the European Union, downplayed the significance of Mr. Orban’s visit. Dmitry S. Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, was quoted by the Tass news agency as saying that Mr. Orban’s presence in Kiev did not reflect a change in Hungary’s position, but only its responsibilities after taking over the rotating presidency of the European Union. “We don’t expect anything,” Mr. Peskov said.

An early sign that Orbán wants to shed his toxic image as a Kremlin puppet, said Zeold, a former diplomat, came last month when he warmly welcomed NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a staunch supporter of military assistance to Ukraine, to Budapest.

Mr. Orban assured Mr. Stoltenberg that he would not veto NATO support for Ukraine at a summit of alliance leaders in Washington this month. He insisted, however, that Hungary would not provide funds or military personnel for any joint assistance effort. But the promise not to play spoilsport at the summit calmed concerns that Hungary could torpedo proposals for a new system to provide more predictable, long-term security assistance and military training to Ukraine.

Positioning himself as Europe’s champion of “peace” against those he derides as Europe’s “warmongers” has played well politically in Mr. Orbán’s home country. His Fidesz party won a landslide election victory, its fourth in a row, in 2022 after smearing the main opposition leader as a reckless leader intent on sending Hungarians to fight Russia in Ukraine. That was a lie, but, loudly repeated by Mr. Orbán’s party-controlled media, it helped destroy the opposition.

Ahead of last month’s European Parliament elections, Fidesz warned that Europe’s support for Ukraine risked unleashing World War III and railed against what it called Brussels’ proposals to impose compulsory military conscription across Europe. There were no such proposals, but the fear mongering Fidesz stirred helped the party win Hungary’s vote for the European legislature, although a strong showing by an emerging conservative rival reduced the scope of Mr Orban’s victory.

Conscription, said EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, “is a national decision” and not something Brussels could ever impose.

But domestic political opportunism has dampened Mr. Orban’s appeal beyond Hungary’s borders. His most vocal supporters abroad have been right-wing Americans like Donald J. Trump. In Europe, only Slovakia has been vocal in its opposition to support for Ukraine.

And that, Zeold said, is a problem for Orbán, whose ambitions go far beyond Hungary's 10 million inhabitants alone.

“Hungary’s domestic political scene is too small for Orban,” Mr. Zeold said. “He wants to play on a bigger playing field. And that is the EU.”

Marc Santora contributed reporting.

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