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With Brussels fuming, Putin welcomes Orbán as EU leader

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a warm Kremlin welcome to Viktor Orbán on Friday, greeting the Hungarian leader as the “president of the Council of the European Union,” even as Brussels disavowed that Orbán was representing the 27 EU countries.

Orbán jetted off to Moscow just days after Hungary took over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. The other member states have been nearly unanimous in condemning the trip, insisting that the Hungarian leader has no authorization from the bloc to negotiate.

That rebuke didn’t faze the Russian president.

“I understand that you have come here now not only as our partner, but also as the president of the Council of the European Union,” Putin said in his greeting. “I hope we’ll be able to talk about our bilateral relations in these difficult circumstances, and we’ll talk about the biggest European crisis, the situation in Ukraine,” he added.

“I am at your disposal, and I understand that you may know what my positions are on this issue and what proposals we have made,” the Russian leader told Orbán. “I am ready to talk about all aspects of the situation, and I expect that you will share with me your position and the perspective of the European partners.”

EU leaders were fuming.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stressed that Orbán was “travelling to Putin as Hungarian prime minister,” not as an envoy of the European Council. That echoed the message from European Council President Charles Michel, who wrote on X: “The EU rotating presidency has no mandate to engage with Russia on behalf of the EU.”

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who is in line to be the EU’s next chief diplomat, said that Orbán “in no way represents the EU or the EU’s positions” in visiting Moscow. “He is exploiting the EU presidency position to sow confusion,” she said.

Orbán said earlier Friday that he was continuing a “peace mission” that also included a visit to Kyiv on Tuesday, where the Hungarian leader met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said there were “no signs Putin was ready to negotiate for peace.”

In the Kremlin, Orbán thanked the Russian president for welcoming him “under these difficult circumstances.”

“Since 2009, it’s our 11th face-to-face dialogue. But it’s a more special occasion than the previous ones. As you said, Hungary holds the presidency of the Council of the EU from July 1,” the Hungarian leader said.

“I have to admit that the number of countries that are able to talk to both parties in this war is slowly disappearing,” Orbán said in his welcoming remarks. “We are slowly reaching the point where Hungary is the only country in Europe that can talk to all the other countries. And I wanted to take advantage of this situation to talk with you about issues that are important for Europe.”

Orbán earlier seemed to acknowledge that he had no mandate to negotiate. “What I’m doing may look like a negotiation format because we sit behind a table and discuss issues, but we don’t negotiate,” he said in an interview with Hungarian state radio Friday morning. “That’s why I don’t even need a mandate because I don’t represent anything.”

His EU counterparts saw it differently. As Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson put it: “It sends the wrong signal to the outside world and is an insult to the Ukrainian people’s fight for their freedom.”

In a statement to reporters after the meeting, Putin said the leaders discussed EU-Russia relations, but he began by talking about bilateral issues between Hungary and Russia, and then moved on to the war in Ukraine.

The Russian president said they had “always been open” to a diplomatic solution and that Russia stood for a “full settlement of the conflict.” But he stressed that he meant a “full withdrawal of Ukrainian troops” from the four Ukrainian regions that Russia has partially occupied, something that Kyiv rejects.

Despite the protests from Orbán’s European partners, the two leaders also discussed Russia-EU relations, which Putin said were “at a historic low.” The Russian leader said he saw Orbán’s visit as an attempt to “restore dialogue” between international players.

In his remarks, Orbán also stressed that they have “taken the first important step towards restoring dialogue” and said he would “continue to work on it” during the six months of Hungary’s presidency of the EU.

According to Orbán, he asked Putin about three main points: the current peace plans, the possibility of a cease-fire, and the future of the European security system. “I am grateful to the president for the open and honest discussion,” said Orbán. “I learned that the positions are far from each other.”