Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visits Ukraine

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of the few European leaders who maintains cordial relations with Moscow and has called on Ukraine to surrender to Russia's demands for an end to the bloodshed, arrived in Kiev on Tuesday for his first wartime visit to the country.

Mr. Orban’s spokesman said he would discuss “the possibilities of achieving peace” with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But in an initial statement after the two men met in Kiev, Mr. Zelensky made no explicit reference to that. He said they had discussed “trade, cross-border cooperation, infrastructure and energy” — along with the “humanitarian sphere.”

A vocal critic of the provision of military and financial assistance to Ukraine who revels in his role as an odd man out in both the European Union and NATO, Mr Orban said in an interview with Hungarian media on Monday evening that the visit would be “the first step” in promoting his vision of ending the war.

That vision stands in stark contrast to the plan outlined by Mr Zelensky, whose government has consistently said Russia must withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory before peace talks can begin. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, however, has shown no sign of backing down, leaving the two sides further apart than ever.

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

Although Hungary recently took over the rotating presidency of the European Union, he said, it will not be able to “occupy Brussels” as it promised, and therefore must find a different tactic to exert its influence.

The Russian government “expects nothing” from Mr Orban's visit to Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said on Tuesday. In statements carried by the state news agency Tass, he suggested that the Hungarian prime minister's visit was about his obligations to the European Union rather than Hungary's interests.

Despite Orbán's open embrace of Moscow, including a meeting with Putin in Beijing, where he told the Russian leader that Hungary “never wanted to engage with Russia” and “has always been keen to expand contacts,” Zelensky said it was important for the leaders of Ukraine and Hungary to hold formal discussions.

“We need to organize a constructive meeting between our countries, because we have common borders, we are neighbors and we need to talk,” Zelensky said in December after the two leaders had a brief, lively conversation in Argentina during the inauguration ceremony of that country’s newly elected president.

Zelensky said the two had a “frank” discussion and that he pressed Orban on his resistance to Ukraine's bid to join the European Union.

“I asked him to give me just one reason,” Zelensky said. “Not three, not five, not 10, just one reason, and I’m waiting for an answer.”

After the meeting, Mr Orbán told reporters that he had accepted the invitation to visit Ukraine, under one condition.

“I told him I would be at his disposal,” Mr. Orban said. “We just need to clarify one question: about what?”

That remained unclear as Orbán's motorcade headed to the Hungarian embassy on Tuesday ahead of a planned meeting with Zelensky.

“The trip does not mean that the Hungarian government will make a political U-turn,” Professor Zgut-Przybylska said. “Orban has been playing this peacock dance for a decade, and Hungary's energy dependence on Russia will remain as strong as ever.”

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