The meeting of a nervous Orbán and a confident Putin benefited the Russian president
October 21. 2023. – 10:20 AM
Viktor Orbán was the only European politician to attend the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing at the beginning of the week, where he also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The event aiming to promote China's economic expansion project was also attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has only visited former Soviet republicsand Iran since the beginning of the war against Ukraine in February last year and has not left Russia since March this year, when an arrest warrant was issued for him by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
This in itself made it striking that Vladimir Putin and the Hungarian Prime Minister met privately during the forum.
It is symbolic that on account of his trip to Beijing, Orbán skipped the EU summit on the situation in Israel, where Hungary was represented by the Austrian Chancellor, and Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó's (who was also there) post about the event is just as telling: "It's almost like a UN General Assembly, Turkic peoples, Europeans, South-East Asians," he wrote. The plural "Europeans" is formally true: besides Hungary, the only European country to attend was Serbia, represented by President Aleksandar Vučić.
There are several possible interpretations of the Putin-Orbán meeting – which brought together the ambassadors of NATO member states and Sweden in Budapest on Thursday morning – and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. According to one of them, Orbán wanted to curry favour with Putin, while according to the other, the public statements he made suggest that what he told him – however obliquely – is that partly due to Moscow's actions, the level of relations they have so far enjoyed will no longer be sustainable.
He did not call the war in Ukraine by name
During the public part of the meeting, the Hungarian Prime Minister said that "we have never been in such a difficult situation", and that bilateral relations had suffered a lot "because of the military operations and the sanctions". This is closer to the Russian narrative, as Russian law prohibits referring to the war launched by Russia against Ukraine as a war, and the term "special military operation" is to be used instead. However, Orbán refrained from using this official term.
Orbán choice to use the term “military operations” was no doubt tactical diplomacy, while in the TikTok video he posted after the meeting, he used the word “war”. Here, he said that when he asked Putin about the chances of a ceasefire, he did not receive a reassuring answer – adding that "our goal is to maintain Hungarian-Russian cooperation in the field of energy and other economic issues despite the war."
Later, the Hungarian television channel ATV also asked Gergely Gulyás, Minister of the Prime Minister's Office, why Orbán avoided calling the war a war at the meeting. Instead of a substantive response, Gulyás said that "the Hungarian government has a clear opinion, along with the EU member states, we have adopted all documents condemning the war and calling on Russia to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine".
The only EU leader to shake hands with Putin
Previously, Italy has also joined China's Belt and Road Initiative, and it even participated in the previous forum in 2019, but has since indicated its intention to withdraw. The current Hungarian participation is in itself an anomaly, given that in the face of Chinese economic expansion, the West is actually seeking to withdraw from previous cooperation. This is compounded by the meeting with Putin, with whom no EU leader has held talks on such a level since the start of the war.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer did meet with Putin once since the start of the war, when he visited Moscow in April 2022. He had previously visited Kyiv and its surroundings and said he confronted Putin with what he had seen in Bucha, where signs of brutal atrocities were found after the withdrawal of Russian forces. "It was not a friendly conversation," he said at the time. However, as Politico points out, Orbán and Putin's handshake in Beijing was the first handshake between the Russian president and the leader of an EU member state documented in a photo since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began.
The fact that they met is good for Putin, because with it he can signal that the EU is not united, and lo and behold, here is the leader of EU and NATO member Hungary. Putin even underlined this, saying that the meeting not only allows them to discuss bilateral relations, but also to look at the European and global context.
EU leaders did not comment on Orbán's meeting with Putin en masse, but Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said: "It was very, very unpleasant to see pictures of the Prime Minister of Hungary, a member of the European Union, shaking hands with Vladimir Putin". She added: “How can you shake a criminal's hand, who has waged a war of aggression, especially coming from a country that has a history like Hungary has?"
In addition, Germany's ambassador in Budapest was also critical of the meeting, expressing doubts that Orbán negotiated about an end to the war by stressing Putin's responsibility. "So – Putin has to end his war against Ukraine, end the bombing of civilians, the rocket attacks on schools and hospitals and the kidnapping of children? That was the intention and the subject of the discussion, wasn't it?" – asked Julia Gross. The reaction of the Minister in charge of the Prime Minister's Office was "Yes, that's why the Hungarian Prime Minister met with the Russian President." Gergely Gulyás noted that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had also met Putin several times – although the last time he did so was on 15 February 2022, nine days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (While undoubtedly, the war itself actually began in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Orbán was not criticised for the meetings that took plaace during the eight years that followed.)
But the US ambassador to Budapest, David Pressman, who has been the recipient of a lot of personal jabs from the Hungarian government since his arrival, has also condemned Orbán's meeting in no uncertain terms. "While Russia strikes Ukrainian civilians, Hungary pleads for business deals," the ambassador posted, to which Gergely Gulyás told ATV that the ambassador should watch the videos of Joe Biden meeting Putin as vice president and then president.
Following Thursday's meeting of the ambassadors of NATO member states and Sweden in Budapest, Pressman said that they met because "we are all concerned that the Hungarian Prime Minister met with President Putin while Russia is at war with Ukraine as an aggressor". He added that they see Hungary as an ally, but also that "Hungary is deepening its relationship with Russia despite its brutal war in Ukraine."
Salvaging what he can from the bilateral relations
A special part of Orbán's speech was about maintaining bilateral relations. It is worth highlighting the effort with which Orbán spoke about continuing them: "Mr President, you know what Hungary is like, what potential it has. We will do what we can today. We will salvage all we can from our bilateral relations. It is in our interest to maintain cooperation not only on the level of exchanging ideas, but also on the economic level, for as long as we can", he said.
While this may indicate a willingness to maintain relations and stand by Russia, it may equally mean that Hungary will no longer be able to maintain the current level of cooperation. This part is without doubt tantamount to an apology, saying that for reasons beyond its control, as a member of the EU and NATO, Hungary has no choice but to limit the relationship in the future.
At his own press conference on Tuesday, the Russian President said, "As for Prime Minister Orbán, he is often accused of being pro-Russian. This is nonsense. He is not pro-Russian, he is a pro-Hungarian politician. First of all, he is attacked not because he has a different position from many European leaders, but because he has the courage to defend the interests of his own people. And many European politicians today do not have the courage to do so. They simply envy him for it and attack him for it."
Whether Putin's words, which are unusually personal and supportive for diplomacy are an acknowledgement of the decline in economic ties, or whether Orbán was in fact promising to continue in a different direction from his own alliance system, which the Russian president thus acknowledged, remains to be seen.
The body language on the public video showed a somewhat nervous Orbán and a confident Putin.
Russia expert András Rácz, said that the Kremlin's release of footage of the part of the meeting where Orbán appeared nervous in the Russian president's company was a special message from the Russian side. "They wanted to show both the domestic audience and the outside world that Moscow is the dominant party in this relationship, while the Hungarian Prime Minister is clearly in a subordinate role," the senior fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations wrote.
Alternative sources quietly emerge in the background
The Russian president's post-meeting statements are also ambiguous: they imply that Orbán is a reliable partner, but also that Moscow has acknowledged the Prime Minister's limited room for manoeuvre.
The tightening of economic ties with Russia, which is isolated from the West and has been hit by sanctions on account of the war against Ukraine, is not directly visible, but there are signs of it in the energy sector, which is considered the most important.
In September, in a closed meeting in the Hungarian village of Kötcse Orbán allegedly said that the Paks Nuclear Power Plant could also run on French fuel instead of Russian, and Bulgaria has already concluded an agreement to this effect, but no deliveries have been made there yet. However, this is technically feasible, as the Swedish subsidiary of the US-based Westinghouse recently supplied fuel to the Soviet-era Temelin power plant in the Czech Republic.
The Hungarian side has not signed such a contract with the French Framatome, but it has signed a contract for the supply of nuclear fuel for future modular nuclear power plants. At the government briefing in early September, Gergely Gulyás was unable to say whether the supply could also apply to the Paks power plants – the existing Plant I. and Plant II., which is still under construction. The Prime Minister's Office later clarified that Russian fuel will continue to be used at Paks. So there is no change there, and neither has the government hinted at it. However, this does not rule out Framatome as an alternative supplier of fuel elements in the long term.
The Hungarian government already has a relationship with the French company, as Framatome will replace the German Siemens as the supplier of the control systems for Paks II, with Russian consent. The construction of the plant remains under Rosatom's jurisdiction and has entered a new phase, albeit slowly. Orbán could have been referring to the slow pace and the change of partners when he specifically thanked Putin for the fact that the Russian nuclear company remained a reliable partner.
In this context, while in Georgia recently, Orbán once again raised the possibility of green electricity coming to Hungary from Azerbaijan via an undersea pipeline. The project is seen by experts as hardly realistic, but the intention is to reduce dependence on Russia, as well as to reduce mining royalties, which could also somehwat increase domestic gas production. While this would at most cover only one-fifth to one-sixth of the country's consumption, over the last decade, Hungary has established pipeline connections with all its neighbours except Slovenia.
For the time being, the Hungarian government insists that there is no alternative to Russian gas, but it is technically possible to import gas from outside Russia through pipelines reaching Hungary's neighbours, and Orbán's cautious, partly apologetic speech to Putin may have hinted at this possibility as a long term solution.
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