Orban doubles down at EU summit to defend meeting Putin. One leader calls it a very wrong message

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FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pose for a photo prior to their talks on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. Orban will be the center of attention at an EU summit Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023 following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. Diplomats say EU leaders will directly confront him with accusations he broke EU unity in their support of Ukraine. (Grigory Sysoyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

BRUSSELS – If a warm handshake with Russian President Vladimir Putin weren't provocative enough, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban went into an EU summit Thursday saying he was right to meet the EU's foremost enemy and that most of the other leaders were wrong.

Orban characterized himself as the only one actively seeking peace in Ukraine, though his controversial stance on Russia appears to have gained an ally within the EU with the addition of new Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, with both threatening to obstruct EU aid to Ukraine, much of which requires unanimity amid the 27 nations.

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Most EU leaders weren’t taking it. “It’s really more than strange to see that we start to flirt with the regime who is committing very cruel atrocities,” said Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda. “It sends a very wrong message to anybody.”

As the EU leaders held their traditional fall summit in Brussels, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined by video link, exhorting the bloc to continue its support for Ukraine and to show unity in the face of Putin.

Without mentioning Orban, Zelenskyy told the leaders: “And one more thing. I thank everyone who is making every effort to preserve unity. Unity with Ukraine. Unity within the European Union.”

Orban declined to step back from his controversial meeting last week in Beijing with Putin.

“We keep open all the communication lines to the Russians. Otherwise, there would be no chance for peace,” Orban said. “This is a strategy. So we are proud of it.

"We are the only one who is speaking on behalf and in favor of the peace which would be the interest of everybody in Europe,” he said, countering the official EU position of ostracizing Putin since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

That go-it-alone approach symbolized by the handshake with Putin undermined the carefully crafted sense of EU unity.

“We have no right to do that,” Nauseda said. ”It is very important, especially now in this critical stage of the war, to stay united, not to split our foreign policy."

It not only weakens Brussels, but it also strengthens Moscow, said Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. "This plays into the Kremlin’s card, really. They are wanting to see us divided.”

However, Orban will have a new ally around the summit table Thursday, since left-wing populist Fico is representing Slovakia as prime minister following his party’s election victory last month.

Like Orban, Fico has had warm words for Russia and questions about the long series of war-related sanctions imposed on Moscow. He upped the ante during his country’s election campaign when, in clear contradiction of EU policy and promises, he vowed to withdraw Slovakia’s military support for Ukraine.

And he didn't step back on Thursday.

“To make it clear, I won’t vote for any sanctions against Russia unless we have analysis of their impact on Slovakia on the table,” Fico said, arguing that previous sanctions harmed his nation.

Those are welcome words for Orban as he is poised to lose his biggest ally in the bloc, the nationalist government of Poland. The opposition, led by former EU Council President Donald Tusk, won Poland’s national election on Oct. 15 and now seeks to lead the nation back to the center of EU policy-making, undoing much of the existing political alliance with Orban.

For Ukraine, much is at stake: Orban could hold up issues ranging from EU financial support and arms deliveries, and could potentially even veto Ukraine's application for membership, a decision that requires unanimity among the bloc's current members.

So far, though, European diplomats said that Orban’s bluster outside the summit center rarely has translated into intransigence behind closed doors. Since February 2022, the 27 nations have stuck together, even if some sanctions packages were slowed down by extra demands from Orban.

___ Karel Janicek in Prague and Justin Spike in Budapest contributed.

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