A ‘peace mission’ and a likely Trump meeting: how Hungary’s PM became the spoiler of the Nato summit

If there has been a spoiler at this week’s carefully curated Nato summit, then it is Viktor Orbán, the conservative Hungarian prime minister who has enraged his Nato allies by meeting with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping en route to Washington in what he has called his “peace mission”.

Now on Thursday the Hungarian PM is planning to fly to Mar-a-Lago to meet with Donald Trump, a source close to Orbán told the Guardian, as he seeks to negotiate a peace deal without consulting other EU nations or the Biden administration. By contrast, he has effectively shunned Joe Biden at this week’s Nato summit and did not request a bilateral meeting with the US president, according to three sources familiar with the summit preparations.

The Hungarian PM has been quietly seeking to negotiate a settlement to the Ukraine war with an eye to a Trump re-election. Trump’s lead in the presidential polls has been bolstered by Biden’s blundering debate performance and questions about his mental acuity and age.

Orbán, who also met with Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv earlier this month, has sought to have Ukraine and Russia sit down to direct negotiations, talks that Zelenskiy has ruled out in the past.

Bloomberg News late on Thursday evening reported that Ukraine was considering new peace talks that would include meetings with Russian officials, as well as a potential meeting between Trump and Orbán in Mar-a-lago where the two would discuss Orbán’s recent discussions with Putin and Zelenskiy.

And Orbán could use Hungary’s current control of the European Council presidency to claim he is negotiating on behalf of other EU nations, according to insiders in Budapest, Brussels, and both campaigns in Washington, including with a potential president-elect Trump.

Related: ‘Make Europe Great Again’: Hungary sets scene for its EU presidency

Orbán shared only a curt handshake with the US president onstage on Wednesday, a day after meeting with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom he said led “the only country that has successfully acted as a mediator between the warring parties in the Russian-Ukrainian war”.

Observers did not expect that Biden would hold a bilateral meeting with Orbán.

“Biden might not be interested in elevating Orbán and rewarding him after his performance in Moscow and Beijing,” said Daniel Hegedüs, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund thinktank. “And for Orbán, who plays the long game, seeking a meeting with Trump is certainly the most strategic choice than any meeting with Biden.”

“The real question of the trip is whether Trump will grant Orbán an audience and whether [Orbán] will stage the meeting in any way related to Hungary’s ongoing EU council presidency,” he said.

A person familiar with Trump’s plans said the former president was scheduled to stay in Florida until Friday, at which point he would fly to Philadelphia for a rally, and that there was “no time even hypothetically” to meet with Orbán afterwards. That left Thursday as the only day that Orbán could fly down to meet with the Republican candidate.

Trump would also be wary of Orbán trying to position himself as a power broker in Europe, the person said. Bloomberg News reported that Trump had not asked Orbán to negotiate the peace deal for him.

Orbán has not had an official meeting with Biden for the past four years but met Trump in March this year at his beachfront compound in Mar-a-Lago. Orbán endorsed him several times throughout the past eight years and expressed support, calling him a “man of honor” after Trump was found guilty on 34 counts in a criminal trial.

During a Budapest press conference on Monday, Orbán’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyás was asked whether Trump and Orbán would meet during his visit to the US. “It is worth meeting people who are interested in peace,” he replied.

Those on his team have made their support for Trump in the upcoming elections clear. In Washington, his political director Balázs Orbán took to the stage at the rightwing National Conservatism conference, while his foreign minister Peter Szijjarto told Reuters: “We see a chance for peace if President Trump is winning. We see a chance for good Hungary-US relationships if President Trump is winning.”

“I think a very strong external impact must take place in order to make them negotiate at least,” foreign minister Peter Szijjarto told Reuters on Wednesday. “Who has the chance for that in the upcoming period? That’s only President Trump if he is elected.”

Orbán’s visit to Moscow – only the second by a European leader since Putin’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 – caused a furor in both Nato and the EU, both of which Hungary is a member state. In a letter to European Council’s Charles Michel seen by the Guardian, Orbán expressed a broadly pro-Russian view on the conflict, saying: “Time is not on the side of Ukraine, but on the side of the Russian forces.”

He also argued against the strategic isolation of Russia that has been sought by most western nations. “The chance for peace is diminished by the fact that diplomatic channels are blocked and there is no direct dialogue between the parties who have a leading role to play in creating the conditions for peace,” he wrote, arguing against the isolation of Russia.

“Political leadership provided by the United States is limited, due to the ongoing election campaign … therefore we can expect no such proposal coming from the US in the coming months,” he wrote.

“I will continue my talks aimed at clarifying the opportunities for peace next week,” he added without clarification.

Hungary was among a small set of countries that opposed an annual funding pledge proposed by Jens Stoltenberg and opposed including language in the final Nato communique that Ukraine’s accession to the Nato military alliance would be “irreversible”. In May, Hungary blocked a €6.6bn ($7.1bn) aid package to Ukraine being prepared by EU countries as part of the European Peace Facility (EPF) for almost a year.

Hungary was sharply reprimanded at a meeting of senior EU diplomats on Wednesday, during a discussion of Orbán’s “peace missions” put on the agenda by Poland, one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies.

EU ambassadors from 25 member states – all except Hungary and its close ally Slovakia – condemned Orbán’s recent visits to Moscow, Beijing and Azerbaijan, where he took part in a meeting of the Organisation of Turkic States.

Some accused Budapest of being disrespectful and breaking the EU treaties; others accused Budapest of seeking to “instrumentalise” its presidency.

“It took nine days for [the] HU presidency to lose any smidgen of trust they had left,” said one EU diplomat. “His [Orbán’s] actions are not serving the EU or a peace. They play into the hands of Putin and his war project. [The] Hungarian slogan to ‘Make Europe Great Again’ is more about making Russia great again at this stage.”

A second EU diplomat said: “It was quite unanimous in the way that the 25 member states took the floor and strongly criticised Hungary.” The Guardian understands that no EU ambassador at this meeting mentioned removing the presidency from Hungary, although the idea was discussed more privately ahead of Budapest’s six-month stint.

While academics have argued that the EU can remove the presidency from Hungary, EU diplomats are divided on the legality of the move and are wary of setting a precedent. Officials are discussing other ways to register displeasure, such as sending officials to ministerial meetings, although the first EU diplomat said it was “too early for details”.

Additional reporting by Hugo Lowell and Lisa O’Carroll

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