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Hungarian leader Viktor Orban visits Ukraine and suggests a cease-fire

By Isabelle Khurshudyan and Kate Brady Washington Post

KYIV - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the European Union’s most prominent critic of providing Ukraine with military aid, arrived in Kyiv on Tuesday in his first visit since Russia’s invasion more than two years ago.

His meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky came just a day after Hungary took over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the E.U. and was a rare gesture in what has been a fraught relationship between the leaders of the neighboring countries.

Though the rotating presidency yields little power, it gives Orban and his government a platform - one he could use to amplify the views of Europe’s ascendant far right and potentially undermine Ukraine’s call for more support.

During his visit on Tuesday, Orban told Zelensky in their meeting that the war is “the most important issue for Europe.”

Orban has repeatedly blocked or weakened European efforts to provide Ukraine with security assistance, frustrating Zelensky. Hungary, despite being a member of NATO, also does not permit donated Western weapons to be transferred to Ukraine across the countries’ shared border.

Ukrainian officials were pleased that despite Orban’s many efforts to hold up E.U. assistance, Hungary attended a peace conference that Ukraine organized in Switzerland last month. Budapest ultimately supported the joint statement that participating countries drafted, which called for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” to be the basis of any peace agreement. Russia was not invited to the summit and dismissed it as pointless.

But on Tuesday, Orban suggested Ukraine should agree to a cease-fire with Russia as part of an effort to begin negotiations to end the fighting, which would leave Moscow in control of roughly one-fifth of Ukraine.

The 10-point peace plan that Kyiv has asked countries to support does not include agreeing to a cessation of hostilities while Russian troops are still occupying Ukraine. Officials have said that is because such a move would give Moscow an opportunity to rearm and renew its attacks aimed at seizing Ukrainian territory.

“I told [Zelensky] that his initiatives require a lot of time due to international diplomatic rules,” Orban said Tuesday. He added that he asked Zelensky “to consider whether it might be possible to do things a bit differently - to stop the fire and then negotiate with Russia, as a cease-fire would speed up the pace of these negotiations.”

Hungary’s takeover of the presidency of the Council of the E.U. provided a “good excuse” for the meeting between Orban and Zelensky, said Zsuzsanna Végh, an analyst specializing in Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based think tank.

“For Orban, the visit may also serve to portray him as a more constructive actor and build his image as an advocate for peace,” Végh said. But, she added, “Orbán’s position or request toward Zelensky - calling for a cease-fire before peace negotiations - continues to reflect a disregard for Kyiv’s views.”

In remarks after the meeting, Zelensky did not address Orban’s suggestion of a cease-fire. He said that Hungary will open a first Ukrainian-language school for refugees living there. “The substance of our dialogue on all today’s issues can become the basis for a new bilateral document between our states,” Zelensky said.

Budapest claims that Kyiv is failing to guarantee the rights of its Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s western Zakarpattia region. Orban’s government has presented a list of 11 conditions related to the minority’s legal protection before it agrees to Ukraine’s E.U. membership.

Though taking on the rotating presidency of the European Union involves limited sway, some E.U. lawmakers have expressed concern that Hungary’s pro-Russian track record makes it unfit for the role. Along with hindering aid to Ukraine, Orban has also opposed E.U. sanctions on Russia. He’s one of the only Western leaders to have met Russian President Vladimir Putin since the war began.

Zelensky wrote Monday on X that he wished Hungary “effectiveness in promoting our shared European values, goals, and interests.”

“While advancing on its path to the EU, Ukraine is ready to contribute to these efforts and strengthen our Europe,” Zelensky said.

Though Orban’s positions on Ukraine and Russia’s invasion had made him something of an outlier in the European Union, he might gain allies and influence, as the success of hard- and far-right parties in recent elections has shaken Europe’s establishment.

In France, a strong showing by Marine Le Pen’s far-right party led President Emmanuel Macron to dissolve Parliament and call snap elections, which backfired when the far right finished in first Sunday in the first round of voting.

Macron has been especially vocal about stepping up European support for Kyiv and had even said the West should not rule out putting troops on the ground in Ukraine. Le Pen has been critical of Macron’s position.

Andreas Bock, an expert on Hungarian foreign policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent success of far-right parties in the European Parliament elections and in the first round of French parliamentary elections would bolster Orban’s confidence to push his agenda.