“Orban Takes the Bully Pulpit” (2024)

As expected, the slow and relentless pressure of the Russian offensive in eastern and southern Ukraine has dominated the spring and summer campaign seasons. The Ukrainians are currently in such a solid battlefield position that the Russians have not attempted any rapid advances, but they are using their numbers for a slow, grinding offensive to wear down the outmanned Ukrainians. The Russian offensive has yielded mixed results for the Russians, but it seems that the West is concerned about the ability of the Ukrainians, who face significant demographic challenges, to endure a war of attrition, which appears to be the Russian strategy. As mid-summer approaches, there has been movement on peace talks by both sides, but it is unclear how seriously either side is pursuing peace.

The international community finds it challenging to assess the seriousness of these peace gestures. As expected, the intense distrust between the Ukrainians and Russians prevents them from initiating serious negotiations as long as the status quo persists on the battlefield. There are serious questions about whether Ukraine is too disadvantaged to maintain the status quo indefinitely, and the Russians are aware of this fact. The Russians are under pressure because of the impact of international sanctions on the Russian economy's long-term health. This pressure, combined with the possibility of a larger mobilization to support the war and the potential for economic decline, could undermine Russian society's support for continuing the war.

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If Ukraine continues to receive Western support, it will not face immediate destruction. The Russians lack the military power to conquer the entire country, so as they advance westward into Ukraine and away from the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine, it's reasonable to expect increased hostility from these populations. The Russians would then be committed to providing a much larger occupation force, facing Afghan-style resistance while maintaining a frontline against the Ukrainians. The addition of a few North Korean engineering brigades will not significantly contribute to the occupation force. The West recognizes Ukraine's need for support, and this war binds them to the promise of unwavering support and even increased aid to help Ukraine fend off its demographic crisis.

The unfortunate part for Ukraine is that the Russians have occupied 25% of the country's territory, and unless Russia undergoes a cataclysmic political shift, there is no real prospect of regaining these territories. Despite its desire, Ukraine is unable to reclaim its occupied territories, and the West is concerned that it cannot sustain its support for the Ukraine War indefinitely due to the potential for war fatigue among its electorate. The West is also concerned that increasing their support to address demographic challenges may not be enough, as they fear Ukraine's inability to defend its airfields from Russian attacks once the much-needed West’s donated F-16s arrive. This is a microcosm of the risk of ever-increasing military support for Ukraine. Militarily, financially, and politically, the long-term support for the war by the West is in doubt.

The war is in a futile stage, as all sides are committed to a war that has no real prospect for victory for any side, and there is no negotiated settlement that will satisfy any side. All the parties find themselves ensnared in a war that they can only escalate to alter the status quo, yet nuclear deterrence restricts the extent of escalation before the risk becomes too severe to persist. The reality is that in a negotiated settlement, no side gets what they want, which is the only sane way out. All sides of the conflict have sold this war as a "must win," and there will be a political cost to a negotiated settlement on all sides, which will have a disruptive impact on their respective societies.

Viktor Orban, Hungary's Prime Minister, has assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union. Mr. Orban's skepticism of the Ukraine War and his close ties with Russia have been a constant source of irritation for the European Union and NATO countries, contributing to an even longer list of irritations under his leadership in Hungary. The prime minister has taken the bully pulpit and is attempting to re-start peace talks to end the war. This has sparked backlash, as the European Commission stated that Orban cannot negotiate a peace treaty to end the war. This has not stopped Mr. Orban from visiting Kyiv and Moscow this week with the stated intent to start a process to end the war.

Mr. Orban is in a unique position to be able to do this because Hungary is a member of the European Union and NATO, but has also maintained close ties with Russia. Although the Ukrainians and EU leadership may not trust Orban, his ties to Russia and his position in the EU leadership present the best opportunity to initiate talks. Ukraine will listen, as it is interested in becoming a member of the EU. Ukraine's future hinges on EU membership, given the expectation that Ukraine will neither seek Russian financial support nor will Russia provide such support. President Zelensky cannot simply ignore the EU president.

President Zelensky has also reached political conclusions following the lackluster outcomes of his efforts at the Swiss peace conference last month. Late last week, the president of Ukraine declared that his administration was crafting a peace plan that garners global support, a feat that the Swiss peace plan failed to achieve, as most countries could only agree on a diluted closing communique. At the EU Council Summit, President Zelensky stated that preparing the agreement quickly was a priority because the cost of the war casualties was concerning.

Orban met with Zelensky in Kyiv and asked the Ukrainian president to consider a ceasefire for the war so that peace negotiations could start. Ukraine publicly rejected the idea, as expected, and Orban acknowledged that he listened to and embraced many of the Ukrainian counterarguments. This was the second meeting between the two leaders this week, the first taking place in Brussels and the second in Kyiv, indicating there was at least a minimal mutual agreement to discuss peace. While Mr. Orban acknowledged that achieving a final peace will require significant time, he advocated for the implementation of a ceasefire during the peace negotiations.

Subsequently, Mr. Orban embarked on a visit to Moscow, a move that infuriated numerous EU officials. However, Orban recognized that genuine peace necessitates dialogue with all parties involved. Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, has been discussing peace in a manner completely different from his absurd proposal for Ukraine to essentially surrender before the commencement of the Swiss peace conference, to which he received no invitation. Putin stated at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that resuming the suspended Istanbul peace talks of 2022 would be a viable path towards peace, a move Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has attempted to restart in 2023.

Putin's remarks were atypical, given that China and Russia established the SCO in 2001, and he was endorsing the Istanbul blueprint rather than the Chinese Six-Point Peace Plan. However, Putin wasn't advocating for surrender as a path to peace. When Mr. Orban arrived in Moscow to meet with the Russian president, the Russian foreign ministry stated that the demands for Ukraine to lay down its arms and leave the Donbas were still official Russian policy.

The Russian position changed as the two leaders met and stated that any negotiations would have to include Ukraine, which was one of the international criticisms of the Swiss peace conference. The more significant statement was that Putin was willing to discuss the nuances of the various peace proposals in order to end the war. This is not a significant statement from Russia, just as Ukraine's statement was not significant either. It was significant that neither side outright rejected the Orban peace mission.

Despite this modest progress in avoiding rejection from either party, there are no high hopes that this will lead to peace. The EU censured Mr. Orban for his visit to Russia, and he does not represent the EU in any negotiations with Russia. Orban did not state he was speaking for the EU, but again, he has the “bully pulpit” and is using it for an end to the war that he has advocated for over two years. The pursuit of peace, driven by global polarization, necessitates a country outside the G7, G20, Switzerland, and BRICS due to either prior statements or pledged alliances. Hungary and Turkey both fall outside of these organizations. These are also two countries that have maintained relations with both Ukraine and Russia throughout the conflict. The war's crossroads are coming; all sides have an incentive for peace but need some reason to have an exit ramp to pursue it. Erdogan and Orban may be imperfect messengers, but that does not negate their efforts, and as Orban said on X about his new efforts, “We cannot sit back and wait for the war to miraculously end.”

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“Orban Takes the Bully Pulpit” (2024)
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