Orbán’s Embraces of Putin Is For His Own Survival7 min read

 In Central Europe, Editorial, Politics
As Western leaders continued to warn the world that Russia stood at the precipice of invading Ukraine, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán flew to Moscow for his own talks with President Vladimir Putin. Orbán billed the trip as part of his own “peace mission”, but his remarks during the visit demonstrate that the Hungarian leader appeared more eager to seek help from Putin than deliver it to his country’s allies in NATO and the EU. 

During the press conference with Putin, Orbán cast himself as a voice for Europe by insisting no European leader wants a conflict with Moscow, while he also did appear at least partially sympathetic to Putin’s grievances. Unlike his counterparts in Central Europe like Poland and the Czech Republic, Orbán touted his controversial relationship with Putin as a model for how good relations between the West and Russia were indeed possible. Far from the sentiment expressed by Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who likened its proximity to Russia to “living near a volcano”, Orbán said peace required engagement with the country that occupied his own for close to half a century. 

In continuing to court Putin, Orbán is without a doubt creating complications for his relationship with his Western partners, but he is also counting on them to ensure his political survival. As Hungary’s elections inch closer, Orbán has forced the country into a balancing act with a blurred sense of who its friends and foes are. 

Orbán’s own bones to pick with Ukraine

Indeed, in his nearly twelve years in power, Orbán has managed to build possibly the strongest ties with Russia than any European state and has made this a staple of his foreign policy.  Again in contrast to his Central European peers, Hungary has been cautious to the point of ambivalence in its reaction to Russia’s menacing of Ukraine with its troop build-up or its earlier annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and support for the insurgency in the Donbas. 

Economic ties between Hungary and Russia no doubt play a significant role in this, but equally important to consider are Budapest’s own grievances with Ukraine. 

Since the Euromaidan revolution swept away the pro-Russian government in Kyiv, Hungary’s relationship with its neighbour has been cool at best. For all the recent efforts to resolve disagreements between the two countries, Hungary has still chafed at Ukraine’s moves to disrupt Russian attempts to bypass it with new gas pipelines to Europe as well as foster national unity around a Ukrainian identity that Hungarian leaders feel disadvantages its diaspora living next door. 

For NATO leaders, unity on Ukraine has been characterised as part of a strong deterrence posture meant to dissuade a Russian invasion of the country. Contrary to this, Hungary has shown that it is not willing to cast aside its own discontent with Ukrainian policies even if it puts a crack in the image of unity desired by its Western counterparts. Instead, it appears to be designed to raise Hungary’s own pressure on Ukraine to make concessions on areas that they are at loggerheads over. 

In a telling example of this, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó warned Ukraine that it would receive no help from Hungary “even in this conflict [with Russia]” if it did not reform a controversial law passed in 2018 that limits minorities’ rights to be educated in their own language. Going further, Hungary has blocked Ukraine’s admission into NATO’s cyber security center despite its history of suffering from Russian cyber attacks. Hungary has not cited its discontent with Ukraine’s language law for this, but it has used this disagreement in the past to slow Kyiv’s accession process with NATO. 

In truth, these actions are more likely to indirectly benefit Russia in the current crisis and are not the result of conscious support from Hungary. But at a time when unity is deemed central to Western deterrence, these grievances from Budapest can take on outsized importance. 

Is Orbán seeking a lifeline from Putin?

Orbán has never shied away from defending his ties to Russia or his affinity for Putin, but he is now pivoting to framing the relationship as an asset ahead of the Hungarian elections scheduled for April. In an interview upon returning from Moscow, Orbán explained that the benefits of good relations with Russia would aid Hungary’s quest to becoming a “champion” on climate change, pointing to the Russian support for the construction of the Paks II nuclear power plant. Going further, he said that securing future supplies of Russian gas would contribute to Hungary’s transition into a zero-emissions economy within the next decade. 

To be certain, Europe as a whole has been in the grips of a gas supply crunch that has pushed energy prices higher and has fueled reluctance on the part of several countries to be more assertive in confronting Russia over Ukraine. Orbán played on this fact by accusing Germany, a frequent critic of his government and a major importer of Russian gas, of having a “love affair” with Russia to further justify his policies. What he left out is Berlin’s promise to support a strong response to a Russian advance on Ukraine and its decision to dispatch military forces to NATO’s eastern flank in a show of support to Kyiv. In contrast, Orbán insists new Western sanctions against Russia would hurt Hungary as much and his government refuses to allow NATO troops on its territory. 

Yet rather than acting simply to please Putin, Orbán has his own political survival in mind. In contrast to Orbán’s embrace of Russia, Hungary’s opposition parties have been much more forthright in their condemnation of its actions and accused the prime minister of leading his country away from Western values by continuing to cozy up to Russia. Opposition politicians have used Orbán’s embrace of Russia, as well as China, to attack his rule with Peter Marki-Zay, his opponent in April, promising to reverse any drift towards the two authoritarian states. 

Politically, both sides are hoping their argument will win the day and the Hungarian public shows signs of being receptive to each’s pitch. In a poll by the Bratislava-based think tank Globsec, 53% of Hungarians felt Russia was too aggressive towards its neighbours yet the same survey found 65% also agreed it presented no threat to Hungary. Foreign policy is unlikely to be the deciding issue in the election, but interconnected concerns about poverty, jobs and prices in Hungary after the COVID-19 pandemic may give Orbán confidence in the strength of his economic argument for good ties with Russia. 

Will Orbán pick Putin over NATO? 

It is true that Orbán has been Vladimir Putin’s most consistent ally within NATO and the E.U, but his recent trip to Moscow and his defence of this relationship appear designed with self-preservation in mind more than anything else. 

For years, Orbán and his officials have characterised Hungarian foreign policy as designed to position it as between East and West. While Orbán’s courting of Putin muddies the image of NATO unity over Ukraine, he has not done more to harm the current negotiations. In fact, Hungary has continued to supply gas to Ukraine despite their mutual coolness towards one another and Orbán acknowledged Budapest is a small player, albeit one with outsized interests at stake, in the current crisis. This may translate to an admission that a final say on how NATO or the EU responds to a Russian invasion is not his to make.

However, as the standoff between Russia, the West and Ukraine show few signs of waning, it will become more evident over time how much further Orbán is willing to go to boost his chances of re-election in April. Will his embrace of Russia yield the political dividends to overcome the opposition? That remains to be seen. What Orbán may hope for instead is that the issue itself will at least not translate to defeat at the polls.

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