Hungary's Prime Minister Orban makes first wartime visit to Ukraine

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (L) talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (R) in the Europa building prior the start of the meeting on June 27, 2024, in Brussels, Belgium.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrived in Ukraine on Tuesday for his first wartime visit to the battle-torn country.

Orban, widely viewed as Russia’s closest ally within the European Union and a vocal critic of NATO’s support for Kyiv, is due to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy to discuss peace in the European region.

“The talks will focus on possibilities for achieving peace, as well as current issues in Hungarian-Ukrainian bilateral relations,” Hungary’s international spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs said on social media.

Orban’s visit crowns months of frequent opposition to the EU’s financial aid packages for Kyiv. In a historic, pre-agreed move, Orban left the room in December so EU leaders could take a unanimous stance on opening accession talks with the war-torn country. The bloc formally started membership discussions with Ukraine and Moldova last week, although a long and strenuous path lies ahead.

A self-proclaimed “peacemaker,” Orban and his administration have refused to send weapons to Ukraine and have dissented against deeper NATO support of non-member Kyiv — but have also agreed not to block NATO initiatives. Orban absented from last month’s Ukraine Peace Summit in Switzerland, where Hungary was instead represented by Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.

The Hungarian prime minister has also been one of the few Western leaders to meet the increasingly isolated Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, now well into its third year. In October, he reassured Putin that Hungary “never wanted to confront Russia,” the Associated Press reported.

This week’s visit comes a day after Orban’s nationalistic government assumed the rotating EU presidency under a “Make Europe Great Again” slogan sharply reminiscent of the 2016 campaign strapline of former U.S. President Donald Trump. It also takes place two weeks ahead of a key July 9-11 NATO summit where departing Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has signaled he expects allies to agree on further long-term financial and security assistance for Ukraine.

While not formally on the agenda of his meeting with Zelenskyy, Orban has previously taken issue with Ukraine’s alleged failure to safeguard the rights of its ethnic Hungarian minority, largely converged in the Zakarpattia region of western Ukraine.

Hungary has outlined a number of demands over the rights of the minority group as a precursor to permitting Kyiv’s entry into the EU. In a key concession, Ukraine’s Parliament in December last year passed amendments that now allow institutions of higher education to freely choose their language of instruction, excluding Russian — abating some of the long-held consternation of regional minorities since the passing of Ukraine’s 2017 law that mandated Ukrainian as the required language of study in state schools from the fifth grade onward, sparking EU concerns.

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