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Paul Ronzheimer is the deputy editor-in-chief of BILD and a senior journalist reporting for Axel Springer, the parent company of POLITICO.
BUDAPEST — Vladimir Putin’s handling of a mercenary mutiny shows the Russian president remains firmly in control, Viktor Orbán said in an interview — putting the Hungarian leader, once again, at odds with his Western partners.
“When it is managed in 24 hours, it’s a signal of being strong,” Orbán told Axel Springer, POLITICO’s parent company.
Referring to the Wagner paramilitary group’s recent rebellion, which put troops and armored vehicles dangerously close to Moscow, the Hungarian prime minister said he did not “see any major importance to that event,” separating him from numerous Western officials who, while remaining cautious, have said the uprising exposed weaknesses for Putin.
“Putin is the president of Russia,” said Orbán, who has cultivated a close personal relationship with Putin. “So if somebody has a speculation that he could fail or be replaced, [they] don’t understand the Russian people and the Russian power structures.”
The uprising ended with a deal struck between the Kremlin, Wagner and Belarus in which anyone who took part in the attempted coup could escape prosecution and Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin could go into exile in Belarus.
But for Orbán, Putin’s rule remains intact despite the mutiny, which posed perhaps the biggest challenge to his 23-year run in power.
“Russia operates differently than we do,” the Hungarian prime minister said. “But the structures in Russia are very stable. It’s based on the army, secret service, police. … It’s a military-oriented, minded country.”
He added: “They are not as a country as we are Germany or Hungary. It’s a different world. The structure is different, the power is different, the stability is different.”
The rhetoric is commensurate with how the Hungarian leader has handled Russia since the war started. He was slow to condemn Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and has since stood by a Russia-friendly stance in the conflict, an approach that serves both Orbán’s domestic political purposes and helps preserve a long-term relationship with the Kremlin.
Ukraine can’t win
In the interview, Orbán reiterated his argument that it will be “impossible” for Ukraine to win a war against Russia.
For several months now, the Hungarian leader has essentially argued that Ukraine should stop trying to reclaim Russian-occupied territory and seek a negotiated settlement — a stance that has left him mostly isolated within the Western alliance.
“Ukraine is not a sovereign country anymore,” the prime minister said. “They don’t have money. They don’t have weapons. They can fight only because we support them — I mean the West.”
Echoing some of his previous statements, Orbán said “time” was “on the Russian side, not on the Ukrainian one” — adding that Kyiv’s main European partners, Germany and France, are not able to broker a peace agreement.
The “only way” to end the war, Orbán said, is “negotiation between the Russians and the Americans and guaranteed peace for Europe.”
EU asylum package is a “pull factor”
Orbán also went after his EU counterparts over another issue where he is largely isolated — migration.
EU countries recently reached a deal, over Hungarian objections, to overhaul how migrants are processed and relocated within the bloc. Orbán predictably lashed out about the agreement, which includes a measure allowing countries to either take in people or pay €20,000 for each migrant they do not accept. EU leaders are set to address the subject later this week at a summit in Brussels.
The right-wing leader argued these new rules to share the burden across EU countries will create an incentive for migrants to embark on dangerous trips to Europe. And he vowed that Hungary will refuse to pay the fee to not take in relocated migrants, insisting his country already spends taxpayers’ money to “defend the border of Europe.”
The stance presages another looming battle between Brussels and Budapest over migration. Most recently, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that Hungary had breached EU law with its policy that forces some asylum seekers to submit their applications in foreign countries.