How Viktor Orban Became Europe's Chief Diplomat And Peacemaker

Viktor Orban is Hungary's bigger-than-life Prime Minister. Never one to back away from conflict, Orban gained national attention when, as a student, he called for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary in 1989.

How Viktor Orban Became Europe's Chief Diplomat And Peacemaker
Viktor Orban

Viktor Orban is Hungary's bigger-than-life Prime Minister. Never one to back away from conflict, Orban gained national attention when, as a student, he called for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary in 1989. Just a few months later, the Soviet troops returned home. Hungary was free and independent, and the country had a new hero.

Nine years later, Orban, as head of the Fidesz Party, became Prime Minister. Trained as a lawyer, Orban, nonetheless, has a real sense of free market capitalism. During his first term in office, he reduced inflation and brought the government's deficit under control. Under Orban's leadership in 2010, Hungary joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. So, it should be like old times for Orban when he attends the 75th Annual NATO Summit this week in Washington.

But I don't expect it to be without controversy. As we'll see in a moment, Orban is again caught in a swirling cloud of diplomatic consternation.

Since July 1, Orban has also been the President of the "Council of the European Union" (not to be confused with the European Council (UGH!)) or simply the Council. This group consists of 27 national ministers, each representing their respective countries. The President of the Council rotates among each member nation, and currently, it is Orban's turn.

In terms of international diplomacy, the President of the European Council, now Orban, is considered the lead diplomatic representative of the EU. Although, in real terms, the senior bureaucrats of the EU, such as Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, make the real decisions, this current position gives Orban the "ticket" to visit heads of state on behalf of the EU.

And that's just what Orban's been doing. Wasting no time, Orban accepted an invitation that Volodymyr Zelenskyy had extended some time ago to visit Ukraine. Just the day after assuming the Presidency of the EU Council, Orban flew to Kyiv. Orban is a man on a mission, wasting no time to begin.

Orban wants to end the conflict in Ukraine; his immediate goal is to bring about a ceasefire. Although this comes as no surprise to any careful observer, it may have caught Zelenskyy off-guard. Although Zelenskyy had welcomed almost all European leaders to Kyiv, this was the first time anyone wanted to talk about peace. All the rest had pledged some sort of military or economic support for Ukraine.

But Orban came in search of a way to stop the fighting, not promote it. In a joint press conference, standing next to Zelenskyy, Orban disclosed his objective:

"I asked the president to consider whether... a quick ceasefire could speed up the peace talks."

Someone from the West talked about a ceasefire for the first time in this War between Russia and Ukraine. Unthinkable from most of the other NATO countries.

For his part, Zelenskyy rolled with the moment, mumbling something about common European priorities and a just peace, but it became apparent that he had no clue where Orban was going.

What came next caught the entire European Union, to say nothing about all of NATO, by complete surprise.

Orban flew to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. To the collective West, this was a complete breach of decorum and dangerously close to seeing Russia as a responsible member of the global family of nations. If Orban, as titular head of the European Council, met with President Putin, it would give Russia the mantel of respectability that the West has tried to deny for two and a half years.

The BBC called Orban "Russia-Friendly." LeMonde noted that it triggered "anger" throughout the EU and amounted to mere "capitulation" from Ukraine. France 24 said that Orban's efforts were "mere appeasement." Zelenskyy outright repudiated Orban, saying that only "strong alliance" members could negotiate for Ukraine. There were even rumblings that the EU may revoke Orban's Presidency of the Council, an unprecedented move.

Such was the heated rhetoric coming from throughout the Atlantic alliance. It was the standard "kill the messenger" reaction that we've seen throughout the Russia-Ukraine War. Anytime anyone discusses ending this conflict, they are met with hostility, as if peace is such a bad thing.

As Orban noted in Moscow:

"The number of countries that can talk to both warring sides is diminishing," Orbán said. "Hungary is slowly becoming the only European country that can speak to everyone."

Orban continued his whirlwind tour with a visit to China and talks with Xi Jinping. At the end of these discussions, Xi responded:

According to Chinese state media, Xi told Orban, "The international community should create conditions for the resumption of direct dialogue and negotiations between the two sides and provide assistance. It is in the interest of all parties to seek a political solution through an early ceasefire."

In a week, Orban had visited three capitals, meeting with the leaders of the two belligerents (Russia and Ukraine) and the two principal leaders of the Global South, China and Russia. Two of the three leaders, Putin and Xi, had indicated their desire to bring peace to Ukraine. Only Zelenskyy had diminished Orban's efforts.

Tomorrow, Orban will be in Washington, D.C., the capital of Ukraine's principal ally. It will be the 75th Summit Meeting of NATO, an organization that Hungary joined while Orban was Prime Minister for his first term. However, it is likely that his reception will be less than friendly. NATO has invested substantially in Ukraine's ultimate victory; anything less than that, like an immediate ceasefire, will no doubt draw the ire of many.

There is only one thing that Orban might do that would draw more anger, and that is to visit Presidential Candidate Donald Trump. Therefore, many Orban observers feel that's precisely what he'll do.

Orban's mission is to bring peace to Ukraine, and he'll let nothing get in his way.

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Jamie Larson