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Hungarian government embraces Russian cooperation in spite of possible war in Ukraine

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

February 9, 2022 - Soso Chachanidze - Articles and Commentary

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

On February 1st, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin. Orbán is well known for his right-wing views and dissatisfaction with the EU. He has openly expressed his admiration for Putin’s style of rule and ideology on several occasions. This outlook is rarely heard from European leaders and especially those from the former Warsaw Pact states. The meeting had significant symbolic importance given Moscow’s massing of troops along the border with Ukraine, the common neighbour of Russia and Hungary. This move came in parallel with Moscow’s demands for security guarantees from NATO. The Kremlin most importantly wanted legal assurances of no future expansion of the Alliance, as well as the withdrawal of allied troops and military equipment from Eastern Europe.

The US and most of the European governments, led by the UK, have already provided military and financial assistance to Ukraine. They have also moved a large number of NATO troops and arms to Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. Strengthening the Alliance’s regional presence is welcomed by member states in the area. However, Budapest has been rather reluctant to follow suit. Defence Minister Tibor Benkő claimed that Hungary does not currently require any additional NATO military presence. The country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó also described claims that 1000 NATO troops would be deployed to Hungary as fake news.

Besides military and financial assistance, Ukraine is receiving strong political and diplomatic support regarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is most clearly seen through NATO’s repeated line that every state has the right to determine its own future. Meanwhile, Szijjártó stated that for Budapest it will be “hard to help Ukrainians” as long as Kyiv does not change its minority policies. This comment hinted at the status of the ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia, the westernmost region of Ukraine that borders Hungary. The foreign minister also claimed that Budapest has “tried everything” to stop the further “deprivation of rights, provocation, and in many cases, physical intimidation” of Hungarians in Ukraine. However, no real effort has supposedly been made by Kyiv. This, he added, “severely limits the Hungarian government’s ability 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 had proven to be a great year for Hungarian-Russian relations and cooperation. He then expressed his hopes that this record would serve as “solid ground to make further important advances”. It was then announced that the heads of both governments would meet in February in Moscow for the first time since Putin visited Budapest in 2019.

Szijjártó has remained an active defender of Budapest’s cooperation with the Kremlin. In fact, his aforementioned visit to the country in late 2021 saw him receive the Order of Friendship from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Before the Putin-Orbán meeting, he stated that bilateral cooperation is “based on mutual advantages and respect”. He also stated that Russia was a “strategically important partner” for the country’s economy, energy security and fight against the pandemic. He added that whilst discouraging Budapest’s partnership with Moscow, western European states’ trade and cooperation with Russia has continued to grow even after the 2015 sanctions. When asked about Russian activities near the Ukrainian border, he replied that no one can stop the Hungarian government from strengthening their pragmatic relations with Moscow. The minister then again claimed that western allies are doing business with Russia behind closed doors.

The announcement of Orbán’s visit to Moscow resulted in backlash from the Hungarian opposition, especially in relation to Russian activities near Ukraine. The opposition alliance issued a joint statement, saying that the prime minister’s visit sends a message that “NATO and EU are not united in rejecting Putin’s proposals.” The statement also claims that Hungary should support Ukraine’s sovereignty so that the Hungarians in Transcarpathia can live without the threat of war. The opposition’s common candidate for prime minister in this year’s upcoming elections, Péter Márki-Zay, also stated that the visit was a betrayal of the country’s western allies and “historical traditions” in favour of Orbán’s “personal financial and political interests”.

In spite of such concerns, the meeting’s topics of discussion were announced and planning went ahead. 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 Sputnik V vaccine in Hungary.

The Hungarian government relies heavily on Moscow when it comes to pursuing energy independence. A Russian state loan has financed around 80 per cent 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 in order to ensure energy security in times of unstable gas prices. After the meeting with Putin, he claimed that talks would move forward regarding this matter. Hungary’s intention to increase its dependence on Russian imports contrasts with Washington’s reported discussions of alternative gas sources for Europe in case Putin once again uses Gazprom as a political tool. It seems that Orbán is not keen on joining this project and instead intends to increase the Russian supply.

Russia has played an important role in Hungary’s fight against the pandemic as well. Hungary is the only EU member to vaccinate its citizens with Russian Sputnik V jabs (still not authorised by the EMA). According to Szijjártó, almost one million Hungarians have been vaccinated with Sputnik V and the results are “very good”. Last year, Hungary became the first and only country to opt out of the EU’s vaccine procurement scheme. Budapest claimed that its own existing supplies were enough and that by autumn of 2022 it would have its own national vaccine production factory. Later, it was confirmed that the factory would produce Sputnik V jabs. Speeding up negotiations surrounding this matter proved to be one of the key points of discussion at the Putin-Orbán meeting.

Inevitably, tensions around Ukraine were one of the main topics of discussion after the meeting. Before departing to Moscow, Orbán said that he always discusses such matters with the country’s EU and NATO partners. However, he also made it clear that Hungary is a sovereign country and the government always acts in a sovereign manner. After the meeting, he claimed that his visit was a “peace mission” and that the EU already had a common position on the conflict in Ukraine. Orbán added that whilst 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 an EU and NATO member with “excellent ties” with Russia. Szijjártó also confirmed that Hungary’s goal is to promote East-West dialogue and solve these ongoing issues through diplomatic means. He believes that western sanctions have already proved ineffective against Russia and have only damaged European states instead.

It is clear that Putin has found what he called an “important partner” in times of increasing western agreement over issues such as Ukraine. By having close ties to a NATO and EU member and neighbour of Ukraine, the Kremlin can still 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. Links with Russia have also helped Orbán’s image as a sovereign leader who prioritises the Hungarian people’s interests. Orbán’s ideological similarities with Putin also serve as a factor that brings the two leaders closer together. After all, the Hungarian leader called Russia a “successful illiberal society” back in 2019.

Overall, the Fidesz government has once again deviated from a common European position. The party views ongoing tensions over Ukraine as an opportunity to gain internal support based on the benefits of a unique foreign policy and ideology. Russia’s security demands regarding the region should worry Budapest. Nevertheless, Orbán has not yet expressed a strict position on this matter. This is likely due to the fact that NATO will not accept such demands. This places the Hungarian leader in a comfortable position, both safe in security matters and able to negotiate with Moscow for domestic benefits.

Soso Chachanidze is a Stipendium Hungaricum scholar from Georgia and an international relations student at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. He is interested in security issues, the post-Soviet area, Central and Eastern European states, the EU and its neighbourhood policies, European defence and security architecture.

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