AP International

Putin meets with Hungary’s prime minister in rare in-person talks with an EU leader

BEIJING (AP) — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán held talks on Tuesday with Vladimir Putin in a rare in-person meeting for the Russian president with a leader of a European Union country.

Orbán and Putin met in Beijing before an international forum on one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature policies, the Belt and Road Initiative. Their meeting focused on Hungary’s access to Russian energy.

EU and other Western leaders have largely eschewed contact with Putin over Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that began in February. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer met with Putin in person in April 2022.

“Hungary never wanted to confront Russia. Hungary always has been eager to expand contacts,” Orbán told Putin, according to a Russian translation of his remarks broadcast on Russian state television.

Bilateral ties between the two countries have suffered because of EU sanctions against Moscow, he said.

Hungary’s stance on the war has confounded its European partners and led to deadlocks in providing financial and military assistance to Kyiv. Orbán has refused to supply Ukraine with weapons and not allowed their transfer across the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. He has also threatened to veto EU sanctions against Moscow, though has always ultimately voted in favor of them.

Orbán’s meeting with Putin appeared to be a boon for the Russian president, who could point to it as a sign that unity within the EU on its support for Ukraine — and its condemnation of Russia for starting the war — was faltering.

Putin said that while opportunities for maintaining ties with some countries are “limited in the current geopolitical situation, it causes satisfaction that we have managed to preserve and develop relations with many European countries, including Hungary.”

Budapest has blocked an EU military aid package to Kyiv worth 500 million euros ($526 million) since May, and said it would continue doing so until it receives concessions from Kyiv concerning its listing of a Hungarian bank as an international sponsor of the war.

Orbán, a conservative populist leader who has repeatedly criticized Western sanctions against Russia, said that his country has remained eager to maintain ties with Moscow, on which Hungary is highly dependent for natural gas, oil and nuclear fuel.

While most of Hungary’s neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe have taken great strides to wean themselves off of Russian energy, Orbán has worked to maintain and even increase supplies of Russian gas and oil, arguing that they are essential for the functioning of Hungary’s economy.

“We are doing what we can and trying to save what we can in our bilateral contacts,” he said, noting the planned expansion of Hungary’s only nuclear power plant by Russian state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom. The project will be financed with a 10-billion euro ($10.5 billion) loan from a Russian state bank.

In a post on his Facebook page, Orbán reiterated his longstanding call for a cease-fire and immediate peace talks in Ukraine, though he has not indicated what such an arrangement would mean for Ukraine’s future security or territorial integrity.

“In Europe today, one question is on everyone’s mind: will there be a cease-fire in Ukraine,” Orbán wrote. “For us Hungarians, too, the most important thing is that the flood of refugees, the sanctions and the fighting in our neighboring country should end.”

Putin, making a rare trip out of Russia, is holding a series of meetings with other leaders who have come to Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum, and will also hold talks with Xi.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said Tuesday that he had had a short meeting with Putin, one that is also likely to raise concerns in Europe. Under Vučić, Serbia has been increasingly drifting away from its proclaimed goal of joining the EU and is moving closer to Russia and China economically and politically.

Serbia has refused to join EU sanctions against Moscow, although Vučić says Serbia respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Both China and Russia are the main suppliers of weapons for the Serbian army at a time when growing tensions over its former province of Kosovo is one of the main Western security concerns for regional stability.

China has provided Serbia with billions of dollars in loans for factories and highways that Chinese companies are building. A free trade agreement signed with China on Tuesday goes directly against EU economic policies and would have to be scrapped if Serbia were to join the EU.

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Graphic novels are displayed for sale at a bookstore in New York City on Sunday, October 8, 2023. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for September. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Graphic novels are displayed for sale at a bookstore in New York City on Sunday, October 8, 2023. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for September. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Justin Spike reported from Budapest, Hungary. Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.

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This story has been corrected to delete references to Putin’s meeting with Orbán as being the first in-person talks for Putin with an EU leader since the start of the war. Putin met face-to-face with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer in April 2022, around two months after the start of the war.

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