HE is the burr under the European Union (EU) saddle. Seen by many within the 27-strong bloc as an irritant and troublemaker, he’s a leader who plays on his lone warrior image at home to appeal to his voters and uses frequent clashes with Brussels for domestic campaign leverage.  

Few doubt that when Hungary’s Viktor Orbán (below) vetoed an EU-funded €50 billion lifeline for war-torn Ukraine last week, he had one eye firmly fixed on June’s coming European Parliament elections.   

Orbán, largely seen as the Kremlin’s closest ally in Europe, wasted no time in hitting the media airwaves to tell his ­fellow Hungarians how he had scuppered the aid deal and could block Ukraine’s path to EU membership any time he chose. 

Speaking on state radio, he left no doubt that he would use his veto power if needed – saying Ukraine’s accession to the EU would be a “very long process” and there will be around 75 occasions when Budapest can halt it if it chooses. 

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“I made it clear that Hungarians would not pay for the financial consequences of this decision … If necessary, Hungary will pull the handbrake,” insisted Orbán, who has said Ukraine had failed to meet preconditions for membership talks and called it irrational for the EU to proceed. 

All this of course plays well with ­Orbán’s supporters at home, even if the reality is somewhat more nuanced. There was little mention from Orban, for ­example, of how last Thursday other EU members simply proposed that he leave the room as they made a milestone agreement to agree to accession talks with Ukraine.  

Geographic neighbours they may be, but Orbán and Ukraine’s president ­Volodymyr Zelenskyy sit on opposite sides of one of the nagging points of ­friction troubling transatlantic politics: – the extent to which the West should keep funding Ukraine’s war effort against ­Russia and integrate Kyiv into the ­broader EU project. 

While few would deny that Hungary’s nationalist leader still has the capacity to hold up future EU decisions on Ukraine’s accession path, the EU decision last week was a clear endorsement by Brussels of Ukraine’s Western trajectory once the war with Russia is over. 

You could almost sense the ­palpable sense of relief that emanated from Kyiv in the wake of the EU decision. To ­begin with, it instantly helped ease the ­pressure – a ­little – on Zelenskyy whose ­administration lately has faced a ­worrying time over a deadlock on continued American support for Ukraine’s war effort.  

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Repeatedly now the US Congress has failed to approve a $60bn of aid ­proposed by the White House with only a much smaller sum of $300m as part of a wider military spending being passed while ­negotiations over the larger package drag on. 

Speaking to an audience of US and international military personnel at the National Defense University in ­Washington last week, Zelenskyy ­characteristically didn’t hold back on the sense of urgency his country faces.  

“When the free world hesitates,” Zelenskyy said, “that’s when dictators celebrate … If there’s anyone inspired by unresolved issues on Capitol Hill, it is just Putin and his sick clique.” 

With Ukraine facing the US logjam on funding, it was no surprise then that EU leaders were quick to try and reassure Zelenskyy that they would find ways to circumvent Orbán’s veto of the €50bn European package that would supplement anything forthcoming from Washington. 

“The veto on the €50bn tells you less about faltering western resolve than it does about Viktor Orbán,” said Ian Bond, deputy director at the Centre for ­European Reform.

“Ukraine will get the [EU] money in the end. But there is a real problem in the US,” he told the Financial Times in the wake of last week’s events. 

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Currently, the request before the US House includes $105bn in security ­assistance for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the US southern border, with more than $61bn of the package for Ukraine. In comparison, $6.4bn is being ­requested for US border operations.  

This aid package is separate from the defence appropriations bill passed by the Senate on December 13 and the House on December 14 which includes $600m in military aid for Ukraine and funding for the creation of a special inspector general to oversee aid to the country. That bill awaits President Joe Biden’s signature. 

Using the “all politics is local” ­argument, the Pentagon and the White House have rolled out maps and ­statistics to show members of Congress how their own ­districts and states are reaping ­benefits from the Ukraine funding.  The maps show contracts benefitting US industries and companies in more than 35 different states and officials are hoping the local jobs argument will help build support for the funding.  

But even if the block on US and EU funding is overcome, getting both the cash and other military support to Ukraine and into the field and frontlines where it matters is something else again.  

As another bitter winter grips the ­region, Russia has already doubled down on its efforts to damage Ukraine’s ­civilian ­infrastructure and energy ­supplies. Time then, along with ammunition, is ­something Zelenskyy’s government knows is in short supply.  

So crucial is the situation on the ground that arguably it represents the most ­perilous moment for Ukraine since the war began after Russia’s invasion nearly two years ago. 

Sensing the flagging support for Ukraine in Washington and Brussels, and emboldened by meagre battlefield gains, Russian president Vladimir Putin last Thursday said there would be no peace in Ukraine until Russia achieves its goals of “denazifying” and “demilitarising”the country.  

In what was Putin’s first formal news conference that Western media were ­allowed to attend since the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022, he used it as an opportunity to reinforce his authority ahead of an election in March that he is all but certain to win.  

The National: Vladimir Putin has been nominated to run for the Russian presidency (Aleksander Kazakov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Putin also ventured to give a few rare details on what the Kremlin still insists on calling its “special military operation” in Ukraine. 

According to the Russian leader, a steady influx of volunteers means there is no need for a second wave of mobilisation of reservists in Russia to fight in Ukraine – a move that was deeply unpopular. He said there are some 617,000 Russian ­soldiers there, including around 244,000 troops who were mobilised a year ago to fight alongside professional forces. 

But according to Western reports, Ukrainian forces have been taking ground back in some key locations and Zelenskyy has said they want to keep pushing ­forward, preventing the Russians from having weeks or months to reset and further solidify their fighting positions – as they did last winter.  

The Biden administration, no doubt doing all it can to win its argument for continued support for Kyiv, pointed to newly declassified intelligence that shows Ukraine has inflicted heavy ­losses on ­Russia in recent fighting around the ­eastern city of Avdiivka – including 13,000 casualties and more than 220 combat ­vehicles lost. The Ukrainian redoubt in the partly occupied east has been the centre of some of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks. 

The town is strewn with craters from explosions, burned-out armoured vehicles and the uncollected bodies of Russian ­soldiers and pro-Russian separatists.  

Sitting just 12 miles north of the ­separatist capital of Donetsk, Avdiivka is crucial to the Kremlin’s objective of seizing the entire south-eastern Donbas region that has been partly controlled by pro-Russian separatists since 2014. 

Russia launched its offensive around Avdiivka on October 10, triggering ­thousands of deaths on both sides just ahead of the full onset of winter across Ukraine. Western analysts were ­initially optimistic about the town holding out and Ukrainian defences remaining ­unbreached but Russian forces have been inching further around the industrial ­settlement.  

Russia appears to be banking on its human capital and its drones ­outlasting Ukraine’s resources, which again ­highlights the importance to Ukraine of sustained resupply through US and ­European support.  

Prevailing talks by military analysts talk of the need to “circle the ­wagons” and ­focus on defence as weapons, ­ammunition and personnel remain in short supply. 

“These days, we are focusing on ­switching to defence, and, to boost its ­effectiveness, to equipping and mining the most threatening (front-line) areas and use this time to amass resources,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, ­former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, was ­recently cited by Al Jazeera news as ­saying. 

He and other analysts lay the blame for Ukraine’s battlefield problems squarely on delays in supplies of Western ­weaponry as well as Russia’s prowess in the large-scale use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  

This year, Russia began the massive ­industrial production of FPV (first-person view) kamikaze drones, while Ukraine still largely relies on the output of ­makeshift workshops and money from donations to finance many of them.  

“The Russians have managed to catch up with us and go ahead of us, and to produce large quantities of unmanned aerial vehicles,” Romanenko said, though some analysts say the advantages of FPV drones are somewhat overstated and it ­remains the provision of ­ammunition that primarily concerns Ukrainian forces. 

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Which brings us back to ­ Zelenskyy’s ongoing efforts to maintain ­international support. Should such support continue to be delayed or fail to materialise then Kyiv may have to ­revert to printing money to fund its budget which would endanger economic and financial ­stability. 

“Ukraine has liquidity through ­January, but it gets a little tight after that. We need to move quickly,” the Financial Times quoted one EU official as saying last ­Friday.

“Ukraine is right to be nervous. It’s not a comfortable situation at all.”  Making that situation all the more ­uncomfortable for Ukraine of course will be Hungary’s Orbán who will ­continue to do all he can to thwart Ukraine’s ­accession to the EU.  

Although the process between ­opening negotiations and Ukraine finally ­becoming a member could take many years, it still leaves Orbán on a ­collision course with other EU leaders in the coming months.  

This is just what he needs for his ­domestic campaign ahead of European Parliament elections next June and as he prepares to take over the EU’s rotating presidency for the second half of the year. 

“The European Union is about to make a terrible mistake and they must be stopped – even if 26 of them want to do it, and we are the only ones against it,” Orbán warned.

“This is a mistake; we are destroying the European Union,” he said last Thursday, ramming home his point to Hungary’s electorate.  As for Zelenskyy and Ukraine the past week in all has been a bittersweet one. On the one hand, Kyiv continues to be ­thwarted in its calls for rapid ­military ­resupply and support from both ­Washington and Brussels, but on the ­other, it warmly welcomed the ­milestone decision to begin talks about bringing Ukraine into the fold of the EU.  

Zelenskyy hailed the agreement as “a victory for Ukraine.

A victory for all of Europe … history is made by those who don’t get tired of fighting for freedom”, the Ukrainian leader declared.  

As a dangerous geopolitical winter sets in over Ukraine, Zelenskyy for now can take some comfort from his country ­being brought in from the diplomatic cold. Just how long such international succour will continue in the year ahead though ­remains to be seen. Kyiv faces yet more difficult days in 2024.