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Orbán meets Putin in bid to ‘save everything possible’ in bilateral relations

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Viktor Orbán has become the first western leader to meet Vladimir Putin since the International Criminal Court indicted the Russian president for alleged war crimes, in what the Hungarian prime minister said was a bid to “save everything that is possible from our bilateral contacts”.

At the meeting on the sidelines of the Belt and Road forum in Beijing on Tuesday, Orbán told Putin that Hungary “never wanted to confront Russia”, adding that Budapest’s goal “has always been to establish and expand mutually the best contacts”.

“We are interested in supporting this co-operation not only at the level of communication but also at the economic level,” Orbán said.

The China visit marks the first time Putin has left Russia since the ICC issued a war crimes warrant for his arrest, and only the second such trip since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Hungary is party to the ICC.

The meeting with the leader of Hungary, a member of Nato and the EU, is a major coup for the Kremlin, which is using the trip to defy western attempts to isolate Russia.

Western nations have criticised Hungary’s strongman leader for acting in Putin’s interests since his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, particularly by delaying sanctions, refusing to provide military assistance to Kyiv and objecting to its accession to the EU.

David Pressman, US ambassador to Hungary, condemned the meeting, posting on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that Orbán “chooses to stand with a man whose forces are responsible for crimes against humanity in Ukraine, and alone among our allies”.

“While Russia strikes Ukrainian civilians, Hungary pleads for business deals,” he added.

No western leader has met Putin since Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer made a failed attempt to convince him to end the war in April last year. France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz have kept phone contacts with Putin last year, but no calls were reported recently.

Putin told Orbán that Hungary was among “many European countries where our relations have been preserved and are developing, [which] can only be to our liking”.

He added he was looking forward to “having the chance to exchange views with an EU country, Hungary in this case, not just about bilateral relations but also the situation in the world and in Europe”.

Orbán has insisted on maintaining ties with Moscow, especially in the field of energy where it claims that, unlike most other western nations, it cannot decouple from Russian sources.

“We have never been in such a difficult situation,” Orbán told Putin, according to a Russian translation of his remarks.

“Due to a military operation or sanction, these relations of ours unfortunately suffered a lot, it was deeply affected,” he added.

Orbán and Putin discussed oil and gas shipments and their co-operation in nuclear energy. Rosatom is building its only new nuclear power plant in the EU in Paks, Hungary. The Russian nuclear company is one of the few Kremlin corporate giants not yet under significant western sanctions.

Rosatom’s chief executive Alexei Ligachev is among a prominent group of senior Russian energy figures in Putin’s delegation at the forum.

At the meeting with Putin, Orbán reiterated his call for an end to the conflict — a step that has been rejected by Ukraine, which says a ceasefire would legitimise Russia’s occupation of its territory and give the Kremlin time to prepare for a fresh assault.

Péter Krekó, director of the Political Capital think-tank in Budapest, said that while Orbán claims to defend national sovereignty, “it seems he only fights for that against the EU and the United States”.

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