Russia Sees Signs of Diplomatic Rehabilitation in Orbán Visit

For Moscow, the significance of the Hungarian leader’s most recent visit had nothing to do with any peace proposal he may have put to Putin. It simply proved to the Kremlin that Russia is treading a similar path to the one it followed after 2014: from international outcast to a reestablishment of relations.

Russia has been a pariah in the West since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The visit of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to Moscow on July 5 breached that isolation. Significantly, it was also Orbán who helped Moscow reestablish ties with the West after the Kremlin annexed Crimea in 2014.

Both the period of Russian isolation beginning in 2014 and the current one have seen three phases. The first was Moscow’s surprise at the strength of the West’s response, the imposition of sanctions, and how resolutely ties were cut. After all, Russian officials generally believe that they’re not doing anything out of the ordinary, and that all global powers conduct themselves equally reprehensibly. They see efforts to punish Russia as Western hypocrisy.

After the initial period of surprise, the second phase consisted of Russian officials making frantic efforts to develop relationships in Asia in order to prove to the world that Russia was too big and important to be left out in the cold. Diplomatic relations were cultivated with former Soviet countries, China, and countries in Africa and South America, and delegations were sent to all the international gatherings still open to Russia.

The third phase was looking for a weak link in the West. Eventually, a Western leader (usually a European one) goes to Moscow or issues an invitation to Putin, either out of good intentions, or egoism disguised as good intentions. For Moscow, this is seen as proof that it’s impossible to isolate Russia, and that sooner or later the West will be obliged to come to the negotiating table.

Orbán was one of those who helped restart Russian relations with the West after 2014. To Moscow, the significance of his most recent visit had nothing to do with any peace proposal he may have put to President Vladimir Putin. It simply proved to the Kremlin that Russia is treading a similar path to the one it followed after 2014: from international outcast to a reestablishment of relations. In other words, Orbán confirmed the Kremlin’s belief that when the West comes up against Russia’s unbending will, it eventually gives way.

Current events do indeed bear a resemblance to those that unfolded after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its provision of military support to rebels in eastern Ukraine. Back then, Putin was still receiving some invitations to international gatherings, and met his counterparts during the Minsk negotiations, but there were no formal visits—until January 2015, when Orbán became the first Western leader to go to Moscow since the annexation the previous spring. A month after that, Putin visited Budapest, and then, in April, Athens.

Over the subsequent two years, diplomatic and economic ties between Russia and Europe more or less returned to their pre-annexation level. That process was also facilitated by the election of new leaders in the West. Putin did not use the appearance of those new faces as an opportunity to seek a compromise—but as a way to pile on the pressure, prove his case, and wrest a deal on outstanding issues.

Orbán has never hidden his special relationship with Russia. On the contrary, he has used it as leverage to bargain with Brussels and European capitals. Even though Russia classified Hungary as unfriendly, alongside other EU and NATO members, Orbán stood apart from those other countries’ leaders even after the war began. Hungary has always been more skeptical about support for Ukraine than other European countries. Orbán became the first Western leader to travel to Moscow after the full-scale invasion when he attended the funeral of Mikhail Gorbachev in September 2022 (although he did not hold any official meetings while he was there). In January 2024, Hungary blocked a tranche of EU aid for Ukraine.

Like the post-2014 period, we are again seeing a change of leaders in the West. It’s often speculated that these changes could amount to a rightward shift in the center of gravity of Western politics. If that comes to pass, Orbán would be able to position himself as a trailblazer.

Orbán is the only Western leader who not only regularly speaks to Putin, but also to former U.S. president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump (their last meeting was in March 2024). Hungary currently holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, and Orbán is set to invite Trump to an EU summit this year. If the political balance in the West does change, it’s possible Orbán could be a key intermediary in peace negotiations in Ukraine, boosting his personal prestige and perhaps handing a political win to his friend Trump.

On the other hand, if the political configuration in the West does change in the way Moscow would like, there will be little incentive for Russia to seek a negotiated settlement in Ukraine. The Kremlin will simply be able to wait for the moment when Western support for Ukraine begins to dwindle, and achieve its goals using military force.

Only the war fatigue—felt not just in Ukraine and Europe, but also within Russia—may stand in the way. Most Russians would support a quick end to the war, according to polls. Russian industry is struggling to replenish equipment losses from Soviet-era stockpiles, prompting an appeal to North Korea for artillery shells. The Russian summer offensive has stalled just like Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year, and is unlikely to regain momentum without additional mobilization—a step Putin wishes to avoid.

Despite these signs of war fatigue on all sides, it does not currently seem that Putin has any desire for peace in Ukraine. Even if the Kremlin does see Orbán as a possible peacemaker, then it is only in a very abstract way, and only under a particular set of circumstances. Instead, Orbán’s recent visit to Moscow has strengthened the Kremlin’s belief that the West will eventually be forced to deal directly with Russia again.

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