Ukrainian professor-turned-soldier Fedir Shandor shot to fame when he taught his students remotely from the trenches. Now, he is preparing for perhaps another unlikely role: Kyiv's ambassador to Kremlin-friendly Hungary.

A year and a half into the Russian invasion, Kyiv seeks to ease frosty relations with its western neighbour Hungary -- an EU and NATO member criticised for maintaining links with Moscow during the war. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has refused to allow Western arms shipments to Kyiv through his country and insisted it was "impossible" for Ukraine to win the war with Russia.

Kyiv and Budapest have publicly traded barbs: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky scolded Orban for obstructing EU sanctions against Moscow, while the Hungarian leader accuses Kyiv of "Hungarophobia".  


Against this backdrop, Ukraine's unconventional choice for ambassador to Budapest has turned heads. 

Shandor, a 48-year-old professor with Hungarian roots who volunteered for military service after Russia invaded in February last year, has no diplomatic experience.

In an interview with AFP, Shandor was reticent about how he plans to tackle one of the most challenging diplomatic posts during wartime but appeared keen to dial down the acrimony. 

"Orban protects the interests of Hungary, while Ukraine protects the interests of the Ukrainian people," he said, standing close to a public square in Kyiv where captured Russian military hardware had been put on display. 

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Hungary's Finance Minister presented his counterparts with Budapest's priorities during its time at the helm but maintaining the 27-nation bloc's support for Ukraine was noticeably not listed.

"We will look for common ground."

- 'Black Swan' -

The father-of-four billed himself as a one-of-a-kind "Black Swan" candidate who landed the job after one of his viral videos from Ukraine's eastern frontline caught the attention of the foreign ministry. 

Shandor said he was part of a military unit that helped liberate a village in the northeastern Kharkiv region on October 23, which coincides with Hungary's anti-Soviet revolution of 1956.


In the video, Shandor and his comrades held up the Ukrainian and Hungarian flags, shouting "Go Hungarians!" 

The video turbocharged a military fundraising effort, with contributions pouring in from Hungarian citizens.

It also helped demolish the notion that Ukraine's ethnic Hungarian minority, mostly concentrated in Shandor's native Transcarpathia –- a secluded region in the westernmost corner of Ukraine -- were not contributing to the war effort against Moscow.

Around 400 ethnic Hungarian fighters are serving on the side of the Ukrainian army and 31 have died in combat, according to Shandor.

The video prompted the foreign ministry to call him with questions about his Hungarian roots and family background. 

"Then they asked me to send my CV," he said, adding that the selection process culminated with a one-on-one meeting with Zelensky in March. 

Photos of Shandor teaching his students remotely from the frontline went viral on social media last year, earning him the nickname "professor from the trenches."

The Uzhhorod National University professor of sociology and tourism, who does not want the war to disrupt education, was seen in military fatigues inside a foxhole ringed with sandbags. He was conducting his class with a smart phone, with an assault rifle resting on his lap.


When an artillery shell landed in the background during a class, he recalled with a laugh a question one student asked him: "Are you crazy?"

- 'Great chance' -

If his own combat experience counters the narrative of Orban –- who has talked down Kyiv's prospects of military success and pressed Ukraine for a ceasefire –- Shandor appeared not to show it.

He was nominated in March but Hungary's President Katalin Novak -- who is on an official visit to Ukraine this week -- only approved his appointment earlier this month.

Shandor played down the months-long delay with a joke, likening diplomacy to a process as fragile as a "mosquito's genitals." 

Peter Kreko, executive director of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital, said the delay may be linked to the "really tense relations" between Ukraine and Hungary. 

"Shandor's task to improve ties will be a very difficult one," he told AFP. 

Shandor still awaits more official approvals in Ukraine before he sets off to Budapest. 

But analysts are already bullish about his prospects. 

"The fact that Shandor is not a career Ukrainian diplomat is a strength," Dmytro Tuzhanskyi, director of the Ukraine-based Institute for Central European Strategy, told AFP. "He is not burdened by previous disputes."


He said Shandor has a "great chance" to restart relations. 

"But given how complex Ukrainian-Hungarian relations are, not even a James Bond will be able to make a breakthrough on his own."

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