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Hungary's Orban pushes cease-fire in surprise Ukraine trip

Ella Joyner in Brussels
July 2, 2024

Viktor Orban showed up in Ukraine's capital for the first time since Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022 and brought some suggestions for ending the war.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy sit opposite each other at a table
Hungary-Ukraine relations have been less than neighborly in the wake of Russia's invasionImage: Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS

It can't have been an easy meeting for Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Tuesday, but both leaders mustered a smile as they shook hands for the cameras.

"I asked the Ukrainianpresident to think about whether we could reverse the order, to speed up peace talks by making a cease-fire first," Orban, a strident nationalist, said in a brief press statement alongside Zelenskyy in Kyiv during his first visit to the Ukrainian capital since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

"A cease-fire connected to a deadline would give a chance to speed up peace talks," said Orban, the EU leader with the friendliest relations with Russia, who has frequently delayed sanctions on Kremlin officials and EU military aid packages for Ukraine. "I explored this possibility with the president, and I am grateful for his honest answers and negotiation."

Zelenskyy calls for 'just peace'

Zelenskyy himself made no mention of Orban's suggestion during his address, speaking only of a desire for a "just peace."

Ukraine's president previously argued that a cease-fire would only allow Russia to rearm and would not lead to an end to the war.

Hungary's Viktor Orban and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy shake hands
Clearly not overjoyed, Orban (left) and Zelenskyy (right) conjured a smile for the camera during the tripImage: Zoltan Fischer/Büro des ungarischen Ministerpräsidenten/MTI/AP/dpa

On Tuesday, Zelenskyy called for EU member states to keep up their military aid for Ukraine, which, according to the latest official figures now totals $38 billion, from the bloc's institutions and its member states combined.

Ihor Zhovkva, a deputy from the president's office, responded shortly after: "Ukraine's position is quite clear, understandable and well-known. We are saying that Ukraine really wants peace for itself. This is logical."

"For this we have a tool, the Summit on Peace, which have been held, and we are preparing for the second one," Zhovkva said in comments published by Ukrainian news agency Interfax.

Kyiv and Budapest: A difficult relationship

Relations between Orban, who is frequently isolated among the 27 EU leaders in his criticism of aid for Kyiv, and Zelenskyy have long been tense. The Hungarian leader also accuses Ukraine of undermining the linguistic rights of the some 150,000 ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine. His opposition held up the beginning of EU accession talks for Ukraine until last week.

Kyiv: Hungary's Orban suggests truce to enable peace talks

Orban's visit to Kyiv comes at the start of Hungary's six-month term holding the rotating EU presidency. That job will see Budapest chair EU summits and ministerial meetings, pushing along the bloc's shared agenda. 

"The aim of the Hungarian presidency is to contribute to the solution of the challenges facing the European Union. My first trip, therefore, led to Kyiv," Orban wrote on Facebook on Tuesday.

Budapest making most of EU presidency

Alberto Alemanno, an analyst from HEC Paris University, promptly accused Orban of overstepping. "Despite the appearances, the rotating President of the Council, Viktor Orban, does NOT represent the EU27 on their common foreign and security policy. Any other claim is pure optics at best and abusive at worst," Alemanno wrote on X.

But could Tuesday's visit signal a change in Orban's policy or simply an intention to act more conciliatory in the EU presidency role? According to Andreas Bock of the European Council on Foreign Relations, this is unlikely.

"His policies are strongly interest-driven. While discussing ways to end the war is crucial, Orbán's call for a ceasefire is unhelpful as Ukrainians will only accept a just peace. He is likely to continue his policy of being friendly to Russia, China and Trump," Bock told DW in a written statement.

"While many European leaders have already made solidarity visits to Kyiv, Orban has never been there. Now, he wants to use the Hungarian Council Presidency as a platform for peace proposals that largely benefit Russia," the analyst wrote.

Edited by: M. Gagnon