Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest on Thursday, as the Kremlin looks to widen cracks in the EU over sanctions.
The meeting with rightwing Orban — who has called for lifting the European Union’s punitive measures against Russia — is Putin’s first visit to Europe since the election of Donald Trump as US president rocked the continent.
The Kremlin is hoping Trump’s rise to power will begin to see pressure on it ease after relations with the West slumped to their lowest point since the Cold War over Russia’s meddling in Ukraine.
Eurosceptic Orban — one of the few leaders to publicly support Trump — enjoys close ties with Putin but has yet to break ranks with the EU and formally oppose sanctions that have battered the Russian economy since their introduction in 2014.
But analysts say Trump’s ascendancy and the wave of populism sweeping across Europe could embolden the two strongmen leaders to push even further now.
“Hungary has already criticised the sanctions against Moscow but has never officially voted against them,” said Andras Deak of the Institute of World Economics at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
“That could change: Orban will take a step closer to Putin in terms of rhetoric due to change in the international context.”
EU sanctions — targeting key sectors of the Russian economy — were extended in December until the end of July this year, despite some nations increasingly questioning their impact.
For Brussels, maintaining unity on Russia sanctions may now be forced to take a backseat as fears mount that Trump’s policies pose a major threat to the EU and nationalist parties gear up for elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany.
The Kremlin has said that the visit “bears witness to the personal ties and confidence” between Orban and Putin.
The pair have met at least once in each of the past six years and Orban was the first European leader to welcome Putin after his annexation of the Black Sea Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
The Russian leader now wishes to make a show of his “support for a country that has been pushing for better ties with the lifting of sanctions,” Moscow-based political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said.
Ahead of the visit Putin’s top foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov said talks would focus on “developing economic ties” between the two countries that have been hit by the Ukraine measures.
Putin and Orban will discuss Russia’s planned expansion of Hungary’s only nuclear power plant and other energy issues, with Budapest highly dependent on Russian gas imports.
Construction of the two 1,200 megawatt reactors at the Paks plant outside Budapest is considered a strategic project by Prime Minister Viktor Orban but is viewed sceptically by the opposition and the European Commission.
Brussels said in 2015 it was opening an in-depth probe to determine whether the construction of the reactors was economically justified and ensure there was no illegal state aid.