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Orbán Doubts Ukraine Victory, Szijjártó Digs in Over OTP

Ukraine Crisis

In this picture released by the Prime Minister’s Press Office, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (right) is interviewed at the Qatar Economic Forum in Doha on May 23, 2023, by John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg.

Photo by Benko Vivien Cher / MTI / Prime Minister’s Press Office.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said he does not believe that Ukraine can achieve a battlefield victory in its ongoing struggle with Russia in a conversation with Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait at the Qatar Economic Forum on May 23.

Micklethwait had initially asked how Hungary could block another package of aid that the European Union is seeking to give Ukraine, given that it had also once been invaded by Russia.

“Emotionally, it’s tragic; all of our hearts are with the Ukrainians. We understand how much they suffer,” Orbán said. “But I’m speaking here as a politician who should save lives. The most important thing for the international political community is to save lives. Especially when you are convinced as I [am], that there is no chance to win this war,” he explained.

While admitting that Ukraine stood little chance without Western support, Micklethwait then asked the Prime Minister to clarify whether he thought that Ukraine could not win against Russia.

“My position is that looking at the reality, looking at the figures, looking at the surroundings, looking at the fact that NATO is not ready to send troops, it’s obvious that there is no victory for poor Ukrainians on the battlefield,” Orbán said. “That’s my position.”

Orbán’s response served as a partial justification for Hungary blocking a new tranche of the European Peace Facility, which would provide an additional EUR 500 million of financial aid to Ukraine’s war effort.

Listing Uproar

During a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on May 22, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó reiterated that Hungary would continue to block the EPF until Ukraine removed OTP Bank from a list of “international sponsors of war.”

Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention (NACP) had earlier included Hungary’s largest lender due to the bank management’s decision to continue its operations in Russia and what it said was OTP’s recognition of the “so-called Donetsk and Luhansk ‘people’s republics.’”

Calling the inclusion on the list “unacceptable,” Szijjártó said Hungary could not agree to any decision requiring further economic or financial sacrifice until the Hungarian lender is removed from the list.

Several of Szijjártó’s colleagues at the meeting disagreed with Hungary’s decision, for varying reasons, according to a report from Politico. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock seemed to agree with the bank’s placement on the list, citing unspecified reports that OTP recognized the Russian-occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, flouting international law, and had extended credit lines to Russian soldiers, a claim which Hungary and its largest lender had expressly denied.

Others urged Hungary to decouple its friction with Kyiv over the “war sponsors” list from the EU’s attempt to approve more military aid and sanctions. One diplomat even expressed confusion over why Hungary has become so preoccupied with the Ukrainian list, given that it has no legal bearing.

Meanwhile, the Council of the EU, the grouping of EU governments, said that EU ministers responsible for trade had agreed to suspend restrictions on imports from Ukraine for a further year on May 25 after agreeing to a temporary ban on the import of specific agricultural products from Ukraine in late April.

While the EU had lifted tariffs and other restrictions on imports for an initial 12 months in June 2022, certain EU member states, such as Hungary and Poland, had imposed a ban on agricultural imports from Ukraine in April, after the countries’ markets had been flooded with cheap grain from their eastern neighbor, to which the EU had temporarily acceded.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of June 2, 2023.

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