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Hungarian leader Viktor Orban visits Moscow, angering E.U. allies

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BRUSSELS — Fresh off his first visit to Ukraine since Russia invaded, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrived in Moscow on Friday to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin — a striking break with the European Union’s collective foreign policy just days after Hungary took over the bloc’s rotating presidency.

Even before Orban’s plane touched down Friday, the trip drew sharp disavowals from Brussels.

Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s top diplomat, preemptively noted that the Hungarian leader’s travel is not official E.U. business and “takes place exclusively in the framework of bilateral relations between Hungary and Russia.”

But with Hungary now holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, the trip represented a diplomatic triumph for Putin, who has repeatedly accused NATO nations, particularly the United States, of prolonging the war he started. Putin has also blamed them for not forcing Ukraine to negotiate a surrender of territory that Russia has seized by force.

Greeting Orban at the Kremlin, Putin immediately stressed his guest’s leadership role in the E.U.

“‘Welcome to Moscow, to Russia,” Putin said. “I understand that you have come this time not only as our long-standing partner, but also as the president of the European Council. I hope we will have the opportunity to exchange ideas on building bilateral relations in this difficult situation and, of course, to talk about the prospects for the development of the biggest European crisis, I mean, on the Ukrainian track.”

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In a three-hour-long meeting behind closed doors, the two leaders discussed “the shortest path to peace,” Orban said after the talks, according to Russian state media. From Moscow’s perspective, that path typically means Ukraine should capitulate to Russia’s demands to annex about one-fifth of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

Putin on Friday rehashed his demands for ceasing hostilities, including Ukraine’s surrender of that territory, something that Ukrainian officials repeatedly deemed a non-starter. The Russian leader also took up a new line of attack, claiming that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is “reluctant” to stop fighting because it would force the country to end martial law and hold presidential elections.

“For the authorities who have lost their ratings and legitimacy, the chances of winning them are close to zero,” Putin said. He offered no evidence to support his analysis of Ukrainian domestic politics. Recent polling has suggested that Ukrainians broadly support the war effort and oppose giving in to Russia’s demands — with nearly 75 percent believing that Ukraine will eventually succeed in liberating its territories.

Orban said his meeting with Putin took place “at a time when Europe really needs peace,” which “will not come by itself.”

Speaking Thursday at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, Putin suggested resuming negotiations that took place in Istanbul in 2022 shortly after Russia’s invasion when Ukraine was in a perilously weak position.

Those talks broke down after Russian forces retreated from their attempt to capture Kyiv, leaving behind evidence of atrocities against Ukrainian soldiers and civilians in Bucha, Irpin and other suburbs of the Ukrainian capital. Putin on Thursday accused Britain and the United States of directing Ukraine to end the negotiations — a charge that U.S. and British officials deny.

The six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the E.U. typically involves convening meetings and overseeing legislative minutiae in Brussels, not shuttling between foreign capitals at war. But Orban, a right-wing leader who prides himself as a proponent of “illiberal democracy” and has long clashed with other European leaders, is clearly intent on using the role as a platform.

Orban has repeatedly broken with other E.U. and NATO leaders by calling on Ukraine to consider making concessions to Russia, and he has refused to allow donated weapons to be transferred to Ukraine through Hungary, which shares a long border with Ukraine. Orban also has repeatedly slow-rolled the E.U.’s efforts to aid Kyiv and advance Ukraine’s application to join the bloc.

A spokesperson for Orban described Friday’s trip as a “peace mission” but did not offer other details on his purpose or plans.

Earlier Friday, Orban sought to justify his travel, writing on X that you “cannot make peace from a comfortable armchair in Brussels.”

“Even if the rotating EU-Presidency has no mandate to negotiate on behalf of the E.U., we cannot sit back and wait for the war to miraculously end,” he wrote. “We will serve as an important tool in making the first steps toward peace.”

Borrell, in his statement, stressed that Orban could not speak for the E.U.’s 26 other member countries. “The E.U. position on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is reflected in many European Council conclusions,” he said. “That position excludes official contacts between the E.U. and President Putin. The Hungarian Prime Minister is thus not representing the E.U. in any form.”

When Orban visited Zelensky in Kyiv on Tuesday, there were no such clarifications. Instead, the E.U. flag was positioned prominently behind him along with the Hungarian and Ukrainian flags.

During the visit in Kyiv, Orban suggested that Ukraine should agree to a cease-fire with Russia as part of an effort to begin negotiations to end the fighting.

Zelensky has put forward a 10-point peace plan that does not include agreeing to a cessation of hostilities while Russian troops are still occupying Ukraine.

The cease-fire proposal that Orban pitched would leave Moscow in control of roughly one-fifth of Ukraine, potentially giving Moscow a chance to rearm and renew its efforts to seize more territory. Russia first invaded and illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Eight years later, in February 2022, Putin launched a full-scale invasion seeking to capture Kyiv.

A number of European officials and leaders have dismissed the notion that Orban can play peacemaker, particularly on behalf of the E.U.

“The European Council is clear,” Charles Michel, president of the European Council, posted Thursday. “Russia is the aggressor, Ukraine is the victim. No discussions about Ukraine can take place without Ukraine.”

Orban, after meeting with Putin, acknowledged the difficult of reaching a peace deal “We need to work for it,” he said. “The positions are far apart.”

Ilyushina reported from Berlin. Serhii Korolchuk in Kyiv and Kate Brady in Berlin contributed to this report.

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