By Krisztina Than and Anita Komuves
BUDAPEST -Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Wednesday he had spoken at length with Russian President Vladimir Putin and asked him to announce an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine.
Orban said he had invited Putin for talks in Hungary to be held with the Ukrainian and French presidents as well as the German chancellor. He said Putin’s response was “positive”, but that the Russian leader said this would carry conditions.
“I suggested to President Putin that he should announce a ceasefire immediately,” Orban told a news conference, adding that it was Putin who called him. He said European leaders had not yet been informed of the proposal.
Orban, a conservative nationalist and one of the few European leaders to have good relations with Putin, said the talks he proposed in Budapest should focus on an immediate ceasefire, as peace talks would take a longer time.
“The response was positive but the Russian president said this had conditions,” he said. “I cannot negotiate to meet those conditions – it should be him and the Ukrainian president agreeing on those.”
Orban, who won a fourth consecutive term with a landslide in an election on Sunday, again condemned the Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. But he has so far refrained from any criticism of Putin himself.
“This is a war that the Russians started, they attacked Ukraine, and it’s aggression, this is the joint stance of the European Union and Hungary shares that stance,” he said.
However, Orban, under whom Hungary has cultivated close business ties with Putin’s Russia, has opposed any EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas or Western arms shipments through Hungarian territory to Ukraine.
Orban also said Hungary was prepared to pay roubles for Russian gas, breaking ranks with the European Union which has sought a united front in opposing Moscow’s demand for payment in the currency.
Moscow refers to its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation” designed to demilitarise and “denazify” the country. That position is rejected by Ukraine, a parliamentary democracy, and the West as a pretext for an unprovoked invasion.
Poland, a long-term ally of Hungary in its clashes with the EU over what critics say is a systemic erosion of democratic rights, has criticised Budapest for its cautious positioning on the Ukraine war. The Czech Republic has done the same.
Orban said his aim was to strengthen the alliance with Poland. The two countries have supported each other for years in their battles with Brussels over the rule of law and access to EU funds.
“The most important is that our alliance with Poland must be solidified as we cannot remain standing alone in this storm,” Orban said, describing the links with Poland as a “mutual defence alliance”.
The European Union executive started a new disciplinary procedure against Hungary on Tuesday in a step that could lead to freezing funding for Budapest for undercutting liberal democratic rights.
Orban also said the expansion of the Paks nuclear plant, which Hungary gave to Russian state firm Rostatom in a 2014 deal signed without a public tender, was on track. The project has been seriously delayed.