Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has told the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to choose a side when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during a heartfelt address to EU leaders.
Zelenskiy said Orbán needed “to decide who you are with”, as he thanked EU leaders for imposing sanctions on Russia but reproached them for being “a little late”.
A visibly tired but emphatic Zelenskiy name-checked all 27 EU member states in his address by video link on Thursday night, noting those who supported Ukraine and those he thought could do more.
But the most spine-tingling moment came when Zelenskiy confronted Hungary’s leader, whose recent condemnation of the war has not allayed doubts about his pro-Kremlin leanings, after years as Vladimir Putin’s staunchest ally in the EU. “Listen, Viktor, do you know what’s going on in Mariupol?” Zelenskiy said, drawing a line between the brutal bombardment of the strategic port city and Hungary’s past.
Referring to Hungary’s “tragic history”, Zelenskiy recalled visiting a memorial on the banks of the Danube that commemorates Hungarian Jews who were shot in 1944-45 by local fascists. Scores of iron shoes are embedded in the embankment in memory of men, women and children who were forced to remove their footwear, before being shot into the freezing river.
Speaking directly to Orbán, Zelenskiy said: “Please, if you can, get to your waterfront, look at those shoes. And you will see how mass killings can happen again in today’s world. And that’s what Russia is doing again today. The same shoes. In Mariupol there are the same people. Adults and children. Grandparents. And there are thousands of them. And these thousands are gone and you hesitate whether to impose sanctions or not.”
Accusing Orbán of hesitancy in allowing weapons to pass through Hungary and in cutting trade with Russia, he said: “There is no time to hesitate. It’s time to decide.”
The Hungarian government is not joining other EU countries in supplying arms to Ukraine, nor will it allow weapons to pass through its territory. Budapest argues such steps would endanger people in Transcarpathia, a region in western Ukraine with a large Hungarian minority.
In a statement, Orbán’s spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, rejected Zelenskiy’s demands to send arms to Ukraine and ban Russian energy supplies as “against Hungary’s interests”, adding that “turning off the oil and gas taps would mean Hungarian families paying the price for war”
Hungarian opposition leader Peter Márki-Záy, who is battling to become Hungary’s first new prime minister in 12 years in parliamentary elections on 3 April, said Orbán had brought “shame on Hungary”, isolated himself and lost allies, adding: “He is seen as Putin’s henchman in the west.”
Renewing Ukraine’s appeal for EU membership, Zelenskiy listed every EU member state, evaluating their level of support. Poland, the Baltic states, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria stood with Ukraine, he said, but others, he suggested, had some way to go: “Spain, we will find common ground with … Ireland, well almost …. We believe that Germany will also be with us at the crucial moment.”
The only other leader Zelenskiy mentioned by name was the French president, Emmanuel Macron, with a hint that he did not detect Paris’s full support yet. “France, Emmanuel, I really believe that you will stand for us.” France, along with the Netherlands, has warned against enlarging the EU too quickly and does not want to rush the membership process.
Despite Zelenskiy’s appeal for further sanctions, EU leaders did not make immediate promises for restrictions on Russia, but said in a late-night statement they would “move quickly with further coordinated robust sanctions on Russia and Belarus to effectively thwart Russian abilities to continue the aggression ”.
Zelenskiy was speaking to EU leaders after they met Joe Biden in a show of transatlantic unity. The US president stressed the importance of keeping up the momentum on sanctions, while expressing understanding of Europe’s difficulty of weaning itself off Russian fossil fuels, according to an EU official familiar with the talks.
On Friday, Biden and the European Council president, Ursula von der Leyen, announced that the US would provide “at least” 15bn cubic meters (bcm) of liquefied natural gas to the EU in 2022 to help Europe curb its consumption of Russian gas. Von der Leyen said this was a “big step” and promised the EU would ensure “stable demand” for 50bcm of US sea tanker gas by 2030. In 2021 Russia sent about 155bcm to the EU, about 40% of the bloc’s gas consumption.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism