Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban threatened Thursday to veto an EU plan to boost aid and open membership talks for Ukraine, as President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Europe's leaders not to hand Russia a political victory.
The EU's 27 leaders were focused at a crunch summit in Brussels on granting Kyiv a four-year 50-billion-euro ($55-billion) funding package and an agreement to launch formal EU talks for Ukraine on joining the bloc.
But Orban, an authoritarian nationalist already embroiled in a row with Brussels over democratic standards in his own country, arrived apparently determined to make good on his threat to derail proceedings by using his veto to block both measures.
"There is no reason to discuss anything because preconditions were not met," Orban said. "We're not going to move away from this."
The European Commission has advised the 27 leaders that Ukraine is making good progress towards enacting the necessary judicial reforms to meet EU standards.
Most EU leaders want this week's summit to approve the start of formal membership talks, in a sign of solidarity with Ukraine 22 months after Russia launched an all-out invasion.
They also want to approve the financial aid package for Kyiv.
But any decisions must be unanimous and Orban said that firstly, any aid would have to enacted outside the EU budget and that secondly he would not allow membership talks to begin.
He said Ukraine might meet more of the reform criteria needed to hit EU standards by March, but suggested that a decision on funding could wait until after June's European elections.
Zelensky, in an impassioned plea via videolink, told the leaders "now is not the time for half-measures or hesitation".
He said failure to open membership talks with Ukraine would be used by Russian President Vladimir Putin "against you personally, and against all of Europe.
"Don't give him this first – and only – victory of the year," the Ukrainian leader urged.
In other developments on Thursday:
- The Swedish government on approved a winter aid package for Ukraine worth 124 million euros.
- Estonia announced it will send a 80 million euro military aid package to Ukraine, which includes Javelin anti-tank missiles.
- 'Historic chance' -
Beyond Orban, other EU leaders stressed the need for unity and to send a strong signal of support for Ukraine, which has already seen Washington's support threatened by manoeuvres in the US Congress.
The situation on the battlefield in Ukraine is no more promising for Kyiv. Russia's President Vladimir Putin boasted on Thursday that he has 617,000 troops in Ukraine, and that their positions are improving.
But unless Orban backs down quickly, the EU summit -- slated for Thursday and Friday -- could fail or drag on into the weekend.
"I have packed many shirts," Finnish premier Petteri Orpo said.
Lithuania's President Gitanas Nauseda said the summit was "a historic chance to take a credible decision regarding the start of negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova".
He accused Hungary of abusing the European summit's unanimity rules, and insisted that Ukrainians and Moldovans deserve their chance to begin EU accession talks.
"We must make progress in this accession process," Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.
Across Brussels, at NATO HQ, alliance secretary general Jens Stoltenberg warned that the West must continue supporting Ukraine in order to protect the rest of Europe.
"If Putin wins in Ukraine, there is real risk that his aggression will not end there. Our support is not charity -- it is an investment in our security," he said.
Kyiv is desperately seeking to improve the narrative after Zelensky failed in Washington earlier this week to win over Republican lawmakers blocking support from the United States.
Critics have accused the Hungarian leader of holding Kyiv's survival hostage in a bid to force Brussels to release billions of euros of EU funds frozen over a rule of law dispute.
In what some saw as a last-minute concession the European Commission, the EU's executive, agreed on Wednesday to unblock 10 billion euros of that cash. Another 21 billion euros still remain out of Orban's grasp.
Arriving at the summit, Orban insisted that, for Hungary, Ukraine and the funding are not linked. "That's not our style," he said.
The summit also has to consider the membership dreams of Moldova and Georgia, two other ex-Soviet states menaced by Moscow.
Moldova is hoping leaders will green-light its starting talks to join as well. Georgia is aiming to reach the step behind that, becoming an official candidate for membership.
Even if Ukraine and Moldova are granted talks, the protracted process of joining the EU would involve years -- if not decades -- of major reforms and vetting before full membership.
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