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Putin meets Viktor Orban in China, in a boost for the Kremlin

Putin meets Viktor Orban in China, in a boost for the Kremlin

RIGA, Latvia — Russian President Vladimir Putin, increasingly isolated over the war against Ukraine, met Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in China on Tuesday.

The meeting was Putin’s first with a European Union leader since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in March, accusing him of war crimes in the forced deportations of Ukrainian children.

Orban, a self-proclaimed proponent of “illiberal” Christian democracy, has a cozy relationship with Putin and Tuesday declared his determination to maintain his ties with Moscow, despite the tensions between Europe and Russia over the nearly two-year-old war.

Orban has irritated other NATO members by slow-walking Sweden’s accession to the alliance and his refusal to fully support Ukraine.

Putin quickly crowed about the significance of the encounter, in which the two men shook hands and then held private talks ahead of a summit in Beijing marking the 10th anniversary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a giant global infrastructure program.

“Despite the fact that in today’s geopolitical conditions the opportunities for maintaining contacts and developing relations are very limited, it nevertheless cannot but cause satisfaction that our relations with many European countries are maintained and developed,” Putin said.

Relations between Hungary and Russia rely “on everything positive that we have inherited from the past,” Putin added, shrugging off his isolation in the West.

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Orban, who has been in power since 2010, reaffirmed his close relations with Putin.

“Hungary has never wanted to confront Russia,” he said. “On the contrary, Hungary’s goal has always been to establish and mutually expand the best contacts. And we succeeded,” he said.

But he conceded that Hungary’s ties with Russia had been under pressure due to the war, saying, “We have never been in such a difficult situation before.” According to Putin, trade between the two nations increased by 80 percent last year but declined by 35 percent in 2023.

“We’re trying to salvage what we can from our bilateral contacts,” Orban said, calling Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company, Rosatom, which has a permit to build two nuclear reactors in Hungary, “our excellent partner.”

Much of Europe has sought to sever financial ties with Russia, but Orban on Tuesday explicitly spelled out his desire to continue doing business with Russia “as long as this is possible,” and the two leaders discussed cooperation in the oil-and-gas shipments and nuclear energy.

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Orban’s warm meeting with Putin is likely to deepen the frustration among NATO and E.U. partners over his steady attempts to undermine Europe’s isolation of Putin and his opposition to E.U. sanctions against Russia over the war.

U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman sharply criticized the meeting in a post on X, formerly Twitter, saying that Hungary “alone among our Allies” chose to stand “with a man whose forces are responsible for crimes against humanity in Ukraine.”

“While Russia strikes Ukrainian civilians,” Pressman wrote, “Hungary pleads for business deals.”

In a dig at European sanctions on Russia, Orban griped that his work in developing Russian ties was under pressure. “No one likes it when the results of his work, once achieved, are nullified due to reasons for which he is not at all to blame,” he said.

Orban’s office has in the past declared that Hungary would not arrest Putin were he to visit, even though the nation is a signatory to the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court.

A number of senior Russian officials were present at the meeting including Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov; the head of Rosatom, Alexei Likhachev; and the chairman of Gazprom, the state-controlled energy company, Alexei Miller.

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