Hungarian government embraces Russian cooperation despite possible war in Ukraine

In light of growing uncertainties over Ukraine, many Central and Eastern European states are now asking for additional military and political support from their Western allies. Despite this, Viktor Orbán recently visited Moscow to express his “respect” to Vladimir Putin and discuss cooperation in the energy and health sectors.

February 9, 2022 – Soso Chachanidze –
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Meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Moscow on February 1, 2022. Photo Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation

On February 1, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán traveled to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin. Orbán is well known for his right-wing views and his dissatisfaction with the EU. He has openly expressed his admiration for Putin’s style of power and ideology on several occasions. This perspective is rarely heard by European leaders and in particular those of the former Warsaw Pact states. The meeting had significant symbolic significance given the gathering of Moscow’s troops along the border with Ukraine, the common neighbor of Russia and Hungary. The move came alongside Moscow’s demands for NATO security guarantees. Above all, the Kremlin wanted legal assurances against the future expansion of the Alliance, as well as the withdrawal of Allied troops and military equipment from Eastern Europe.

The United States and most European governments, led by the United Kingdom, have already provided military and financial assistance to Ukraine. They also moved large numbers of NATO troops and weapons to Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. The strengthening of the Alliance’s regional presence is welcomed by member states in the region. However, Budapest has been rather reluctant to follow suit. Defense Minister Tibor Benkő claimed that Hungary currently does not need any additional NATO military presence. The country’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, also called claims that 1,000 NATO troops were deployed in Hungary false information.

In addition to military and financial assistance, Ukraine enjoys strong political and diplomatic support regarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is seen most clearly in NATO’s repeated line that every state has the right to determine its own future. Meanwhile, Szijjártó said that for Budapest it will be “difficult to help Ukrainians” until Kiev changes its minority policy. This comment alluded to the status of ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia, the westernmost region of Ukraine that borders Hungary. The foreign minister also claimed that Budapest had “tried everything” to end the new “deprivation of rights, provocation and, in many cases, physical intimidation” of Hungarians in Ukraine. However, no real effort has supposedly been made by Kiev. This, he added, “significantly limits the ability of the Hungarian government to provide any kind of support to Ukraine”.

The Putin-Orbán meeting was announced by Szijjártó during his visit to Moscow in the last days of 2021. The minister remarked that 2021 turned out to be an excellent year for Hungarian-Russian relations and cooperation. He then expressed his hopes that this record would serve as a “solid foundation for making further important advances”. It was then announced that the heads of the two governments would meet in February in Moscow for the first time since Putin’s visit to Budapest in 2019.

Szijjártó remained an active advocate of Budapest’s cooperation with the Kremlin. In fact, his aforementioned visit to the country in late 2021 earned him the Order of Friendship from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Ahead of the Putin-Orbán meeting, he said bilateral cooperation is “based on mutual benefit and respect”. He also said Russia was a “strategically important partner” for the country’s economy, energy security and the fight against the pandemic. He added that while discouraging Budapest’s partnership with Moscow, Western European states’ trade and cooperation with Russia continued to grow even after the 2015 sanctions. Asked about Russian activities near the Ukrainian border, he replied that no one could prevent the Hungarian government from strengthening its pragmatic relations with Moscow. The minister then again claimed that Western allies were doing business with Russia behind closed doors.

The announcement of Orbán’s visit to Moscow provoked negative reactions from the Hungarian opposition, especially regarding Russian activities near Ukraine. The opposition alliance issued a joint statement, saying the prime minister’s visit sends the message that “NATO and the EU are not united in rejecting Putin’s proposals”. The statement also asserts that Hungary should support Ukraine’s sovereignty so that Hungarians in Transcarpathia can live without the threat of war. Joint opposition candidate for prime minister in this year’s upcoming elections, Péter Márki-Zay, also said the visit was a betrayal of the country’s Western allies and “historical traditions” in favor of “financial interests”. and personal policies” of Orbán.

Despite these concerns, the meeting topics were announced and planning continued. Szijjártó confirmed that the two leaders would discuss the Paks II nuclear power plant project, the extension of a gas supply contract and the production of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V in Hungary.

The Hungarian government relies heavily on Moscow when it comes to pursuing energy independence. A loan from the Russian state financed around 80% of the construction of two new reactors at the Paks II nuclear power plant. According to Szijjárto, this investment will help Hungary become self-sufficient in electricity by the end of the decade. Orbán himself also confirmed that he would discuss increasing Russian gas supplies to ensure energy security in times of unstable gas prices. After the meeting with Putin, he affirmed that the talks would advance on this subject. Hungary’s intention to increase its dependence on Russian imports contrasts with Washington’s reported talk of alternative gas sources for Europe in case Putin uses Gazprom again as a political tool. It seems that Orbán does not wish to join this project and instead intends to increase the Russian offer.

Russia has also played an important role in Hungary’s fight against the pandemic. Hungary is the only EU member to vaccinate its citizens with Russian Sputnik V vaccines (still not authorized by the EMA). According to Szijjártó, almost a million Hungarians have been vaccinated with Sputnik V and the results are “very good”. Last year, Hungary became the first and only country to withdraw from the EU’s vaccine purchase program. Budapest claimed that its own existing supplies were sufficient and that in the fall of 2022 it would have its own national vaccine production plant. Later, it was confirmed that the factory would produce Sputnik V jabs. Accelerating negotiations around this issue turned out to be one of the main talking points during the Putin-Orbán meeting.

Inevitably, the tensions around Ukraine were one of the main topics of discussion after the meeting. Before leaving for Moscow, Orbán said he was still discussing these issues with the country’s EU and NATO partners. However, he also clarified that Hungary is a sovereign country and the government always acts sovereignly. After the meeting, he affirmed that his visit was a “peace mission” and that the EU already had a common position on the conflict in Ukraine. Orbán added that although the situation is serious, the “wide gap” between Russian security demands and NATO’s position “can be bridged”. He offered “the Hungarian model” as an alternative, as the country is a member of the EU and NATO and has “excellent relations” with Russia. Szijjártó also confirmed that Hungary’s goal is to promote East-West dialogue and resolve these ongoing issues through diplomatic means. He believes that Western sanctions have already proven ineffective against Russia and have only harmed European states.

Clearly Putin has found what he called an “important partner” in an era of growing Western agreement on issues such as Ukraine. By having close ties with a NATO and EU member and neighbor of Ukraine, the Kremlin can further promote the idea that it is determined to strengthen peace and cooperation in the region. In exchange, Moscow provides the Hungarian Fidesz government with a crucial pre-election boost in the energy sector. Ties with Russia have also contributed to Orbán’s image as a sovereign ruler who puts the interests of the Hungarian people first. Orbán’s ideological similarities with Putin also serve as a connecting factor between the two leaders. After all, the Hungarian leader called Russia a “successful illiberal society” in 2019.

Overall, the Fidesz government is once again deviating from a common European position. The party sees ongoing tensions over Ukraine as an opportunity to gain domestic support based on the advantages of a single foreign policy and ideology. Russia’s security requirements for the region should worry Budapest. Nevertheless, Orbán has not yet expressed a strict position on this. This is probably due to the fact that NATO will not accept such requests. This puts the Hungarian leader in a comfortable position, both secure in terms of security and able to negotiate domestic advantages with Moscow.

Soso Chachanidze is a scholarship holder of the Stipendium Hungaricum of Georgia and a student of international relations at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. He is interested in security issues, the post-Soviet space, the states of Central and Eastern Europe, the EU and its neighborhood policies, the European defense and security architecture.

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EU Russia relations, Hungary, Russia, Russian foreign policy, Ukraine Russia conflict, Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin

Laura T. Thrasher