Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban went into an EU summit on Thursday saying he was right to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin and that most of the other leaders were wrong.
Mr Orban has characterised himself as the only one actively seeking peace in Ukraine.
As the 27 EU leaders opened their traditional autumn summit in Brussels, the participation of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who will join by video link, will only increase the focus on Mr Orban’s controversial meeting last week in Beijing with Mr Putin.
“We keep open all the communication lines to the Russians. Otherwise, there would be no chance for peace,” Mr Orban said. “This is a strategy. So we are proud of it.
“We are the only one who is speaking on behalf and in favour of the peace which would be the interest of everybody in Europe,” Mr Orban said, countering the official EU position of ostracising Mr Putin since the start of the war in Ukraine in February 2022.
And Mr Orban will have a new ally around the summit table on Thursday, since left-wing populist Robert Fico is representing Slovakia as prime minister following his party’s election victory last month.
Like Mr Orban, Mr Fico has had warm words for Russia and questions about the long series of war-related sanctions imposed on Moscow. He upped the ante during his country’s election campaign when, in clear contradiction of EU policy and promises, he vowed to withdraw Slovakia’s military support for Ukraine.
And he did not step back on Thursday.
“To make it clear, I won’t vote for any sanctions against Russia unless we have analysis of their impact on Slovakia on the table,” Mr Fico said, arguing that previous sanctions harmed his nation.
Those are welcome words for Mr Orban as he is poised to lose his biggest ally in the bloc, the nationalist government of Poland.
The opposition, led by former EU Council president Donald Tusk, won Poland’s national election on October 15 and now seeks to lead the nation back to the centre of EU policy-making, undoing much of the existing political alliance with Mr Orban.
On the EU table at the moment for Ukraine is that Mr Orban could hold up issues ranging from financial support and arms deliveries to the potential membership of Ukraine in the bloc by exercising his veto in decision-making that requires unanimity.
So far though, European diplomats said that Mr Orban’s bluster outside the summit centre has rarely translated into intransigence behind closed doors. Since the war started in February 2022, the 27 nations have stuck together, even if some sanctions packages were slowed down by extra demands from Mr Orban.