Hungary defends ‘restoring communication channels’ with Russia’s Putin

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s controversial visit to Russia, condemned by most EU leaders as appeasement towards Moscow, aimed to ‘collect information’ about the possibility of a ceasefire, his chief foreign policy advisor told Euractiv.

“We didn’t go to Moscow or to Kyiv to convince anybody or present a changed situation – they [the Russians] know exactly the European situation,” Balazs Orbán, who is not related to his country’s prime minister, said.

“We did go to identify the possibility of a possible future ceasefire because it will come sooner or later – this is how this conflict will end,” he said.

“We are 100% sure of that, everybody is 100% sure on that – the question is only the time, and we think that for Europe, the sooner it comes, the better,” Orbán told Euractiv on the sidelines of the European Council of Foreign Relations annual meeting.

Hungary’s leader, who visited Kyiv earlier this week, travelled to Moscow on Friday (5 July), only days after Hungary took over the EU’s rotating presidency. This was the first visit by a European leader to Moscow since Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer visited in April 2022.

EU leaders and officials have in recent days been unanimous in condemning the surprise trip, which Budapest labelled a ‘peace mission’,  stressing that Hungary was not acting on behalf of the bloc as a whole.

A statement from the Ukrainian foreign ministry said the Hungarian “initiative” had been taken with no coordination with Kyiv.

Asked about the rationale behind the controversial visit, Orbán said that “if one really wants to end the war, you need to restore communication channels.”

“We Europeans – all of us, those who are in favour of the continuation of the war, those who are in favour of peace – we will be in trouble, because we will be left out from the deal which will be made without the Europeans and then we will have to pay the price and that will be devastating for all the governments,” he said.

The Hungarian visit was meant “to collect information and see how the parties were involved in the conflict, see a possibility of the potential ceasefire first – this is why my prime minister went to Kyiv, and this is why my prime minister went to Moscow.”

Budapest understands that “we don’t have a European mandate on that, but we’re not asking anything from the Ukrainians or from the Russians,” said Orbán.

“We will obviously report back to European capitals what we experienced.”

Question of timing

Despite EU efforts to isolate Moscow, Budapest has refused to send weapons to Ukraine and has maintained close economic ties with the Kremlin since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2022.

EU leaders have been increasingly nervous of another Trump presidency and the implications of waning US support for both Ukraine and NATO. The Hungarian prime minister, who is backing his long-time ally’s bid to return to  the White House, met Trump in Florida in March.

“Now there is a window of opportunity with the US elections coming up – everybody is talking about change, possible changing priorities – and everybody is afraid that Europe will be left out from a potential further deal,” the Hungarian prime minister’s advisor said.

“We understand it’s a controversial issue – but for example, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, or Sebastian Kurz, the former Austrian chancellor, recently openly said that somebody has to do something if you really want peace.”

Blocking mentality?

“If Europe and the European Union thinks that the only issue which can bring us together and the only challenge what we have to solve is the Ukrainian war, then we mismanage everything,” Orbán stressed.

Asked about the increasing perception of a 26 vs. 1 divide on EU foreign policy, Orbán said “the situation is not so black and white.”

“When it comes to the Middle East conflict, there, the situation is not 26 vs 1 – or if we think about China policy, if we think about Africa – it’s it’s not 26 vs 1 – sometimes we are the minority, sometimes we belong to the majority,” he said.

“This is how Europe should work, with foreign policy being a field where all countries have sovereignty.”

Asked specifically about Ukraine, Orbán said the “general problem is that this war affects us,  it has a very negative effect on Hungary and the Hungarian people.”

“We understand that we all have to be together as 27, but (…) the Hungarian national interest is different and we have to coexist somehow – we need to find a modus vivendi,” he added.

Asked if he is worried that the recent circumvention of Hungry – when EU leaders found a legal way to work around the Hungarian veto – could be repeated in the future, Orbán dismissed the possibility.

Next EU leadership 

Speaking about the priorities for the next term, he said for the Hungarian presidency, which lasts until 31 December, “we tried to identify seven priorities that are important for everyone and they are the priorities where we can work together on.”

“If we keep losing competitiveness, then all countries and all companies will suffer, if we are not able to defend ourselves, then we will not be able to have a European foreign policy,” said Orbán.

“Because then we have to remain relying on the Americans, and the Americans will dictate to us what to think about foreign and trade policy.”

Europe “should have an independent, strategically autonomous foreign policy, which requires defence funding for national armies and defence funding for the industry,” he added.

As EU leaders discussed top EU jobs on 28 June, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán voted against incumbent European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and in favour of European Council-designate Antonio Costa, but abstained on the top diplomat pick, Estonia’s Kaja Kallas.

Asked what Hungary would expect from the EU’s next leadership trio, Orbán focused on criticism of von der Leyen, who is seeking a second mandate.

“Von der Leyen is unfortunately representing the last five years – this is why we cannot work together with her.”

“She always wanted to push her political agenda, not taking into consideration the interest of member states, not just Hungary, but other member states.”

“If it happens [the confirmation vote in the European Parliament], we remain in our position and we will be the toughest opposition,” Orbán warned.

[Edited by Rajnish Singh/ Zoran Radosavljevic]

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Alexandra Brzozowski