Orbán’s Ukraine gamble8 min read

 In Analysis, Central Europe, Politics, Read

International media and European politicians wanted to know one thing before the European Council summit at the beginning of February: would Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán block the EU’s financial help to Ukraine or would he give up his earlier veto? The summit was quick and ended with unanimous support for a €50-billion aid package for Ukraine. While outside observers suggested Orbán had failed to achieve any tangible results, he was successful in another way. In Europe, Orbán firmly positioned himself as a leading figure of the ‘Ukraine-sceptic’  far right. At home in Hungary, government-controlled media spun the story as a victorious protection of “Hungary’s money.”

Orbán often plays to be the loudest critic of EU decisions, especially when at least one more country has some tacit support for his position. This time, however, Hungary’s stance caused frustration and “Orbán fatigue,” as Poland’s Donald Tusk put it. Even Slovakia’s prime minister Robert Fico – who won last year’s Slovak elections partly based on anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian slogans – had softened his position on Ukraine already by the end of last year.

After the summit, reports emerged that it had taken weeks to convince Orbán to give up his veto, allegedly after a charm offensive from Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and a small-circle meeting with a few leaders had created a basis for an agreement.

Orbán’s anti-Ukrainian stance

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the European Union was united in supporting Ukraine. Humanitarian aid, sanctions against Russia, and welcoming refugees were soon followed by military aid and training. But one Member State has stood out in its sceptical attitude vis-à-vis the support for Ukraine: Orbán’s Hungary.

Tensions reached new heights in December 2023, when the Hungarian prime minister was expected to veto the opening of EU accession negotiations with Ukraine. In a feat of creative diplomacy, however, German Chancellor Scholz persuaded Orbán to leave the room and thus abstain from voting, allowing the other twenty-six EU leaders to greenlight this further step in Ukraine’s path to EU membership. But only a few hours later, Hungary obstructed the EU’s budget review, which proposed a package of loans and grants totalling €50 billion (called the ‘Ukraine Facility’) to support Ukraine in staying afloat in wartime. The only reason for an extraordinary summit to happen in February was Orbán’s veto in December.

Over the past few months, Orbán has strongly criticised the prospect of Ukraine joining the EU, citing Ukraine’s corruption and “lack of clear borders.” He also voiced concerns regarding the Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s Zakarpattia (Transcarpathia), whose education and language rights had been curtailed in 2015. However, upon the European Commission’s recommendation, Kyiv has reformed its laws on national minorities, thus restoring these rights. Although Hungarian community leaders in Ukraine called on Hungary to support the opening of membership talks with Kyiv, Budapest’s position remained unchanged.

On the international stage, Budapest has walked a dubious line. Orbán criticised the way the Commission wished to finance Ukraine, but not the fact that Ukraine would get financial support from the EU as such. He also knew perfectly well that any potential veto would be followed by a work-around solution by the twenty-six other countries. Orbán has found many other ways to position himself as an outlier within NATO and the EU, including by shaking hands with Russian president Vladimir Putin in October and stalling Sweden’s accession to NATO.

Nevertheless, Orbán’s Kremlin-friendly attitudes do not explain the full picture of the bargaining game. The main message for his domestic audience was that Ukraine should not receive support “instead of Hungary,” thus referring to funds frozen by the European Union due to concerns over corruption risks and the state of the rule of law in Hungary. For years, Hungary has been the EU country with the most investigations for fraud and corruption; in December 2023, €10-billion in funds frozen over rule-of-law issues were released, just ahead of the summit where Ukraine topped the agenda, following judicial reforms being adopted by Budapest.

Reasons for Orbán’s bet

Many have speculated that the decisions around Hungary’s remaining €21 billion in frozen funds and Ukraine’s support are politically interlinked for Orbán. However, although he may have wished to secure further unfreezing of EU funds, such decisions require trust from the other Member States, and it is hard to see how Orbán’s stalling, or even blackmailing, could obtain that. If this was his only strategy, it proved to be an inconsistent bluff which was easily called out.

Days before the summit, the Financial Times reported that EU officials had drawn up a plan to hurt Hungary’s economy if Orbán vetoed aid for Ukraine. Even if this story matched Hungary’s narrative about “Brussels blackmailing,” the document may indeed have been leaked intentionally from the EU institutions to demonstrate unwillingness to negotiate with Orbán on his terms. The Hungarian currency’s value quickly dropped following the news, and although the described methods to “target Hungary’s economic weakness” appeared to be beyond the EU’s legal – and political – limits, a show of strength might have played into the final decision.

More probable is the argument that Orbán wanted to prove a point, namely that the EU is wrong about Ukraine, as some Hungarian analysts have suggested. This is likely why Orbán aimed for an option to veto the support annually. However, the final document only refers to annual debate and a potential review in two years, which can be hardly seen as a major win for Hungary. That said, in the context of a turbulent election year, which might see victories for the populist right in the US and in the European Parliament alike, Orbán may have wanted to put himself at the centre of attention as a sovereign leader making a stand against the ‘liberals’ and ‘technocrats’ in Brussels.

Orbán may indeed gamble that Ukraine will lose the war and Hungary will be able to position itself as a bridge between Russia and the EU within a redrawn European security order. This dovetails well with a recent investigation by Hungarian media outlet Direkt36, which revealed that Orbán previously voiced his concern in closed-door meetings that Ukraine’s EU accession would create a strong Washington-dominated bloc (along with Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states) within the EU, thus upsetting the political and economic balance within Europe and endangering his interest in independently maintaining relations with China, India, and Russia.

What did Hungarians see?

After the summit, Orbán misleadingly announced in a victory speech video that he had fought hard and had ensured that “the Hungarians’ money cannot be given to the Ukrainians,” and that the funds for Ukraine would not be made available without conditions and control mechanisms. The visuals are also telling, as watching this video one might think that the summit was between Giorgia Meloni and Viktor Orbán, with side-characters such as Emanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, and Robert Fico appearing from time to time.

Orbán also claimed that he “achieved” two things which were never even on the table. First, the approved Ukraine Facility was not connected with Hungary’s frozen funds. Second, from the initial drafts of the proposal of the aid package it was clear that this support is conditional upon reforms in Ukraine, and that anti-corruption measures shall be applied to ensure the resources are used in the best possible way.

A large part of the Hungarian public, however, likely remains unaware of Orbán’s lies. Since Orbán returned to power in 2010, he “has built a media empire whose outlets follow his party’s orders.” This goes beyond party control over major television and print media: Orbán’s Fidesz party has built up a network of state-funded “influencers” parroting official narratives, and has used so-called “national consultations” to promote factually incorrect statements about Ukraine and the EU.

The outreach of this media empire means that no matter the outcome of the summit, it would have been represented as a victory, and, furthermore, that such messages would dominate Hungarian public discourse. 

Burning bridges while betting on a new international order

Although Orbán eventually gave up his veto without any immediate gains, his gamble at the European Council seemed to indicate that he is increasingly ready to burn bridges, potentially leaving Hungary in isolation. We can expect to see future clashes as following the summit, during Saturday’s state of the nation address, Orbán continued to criticise the EU’s Ukraine policy.

Orbán’s attitude may pay off, but only if a number of future events align in his favour, including a Ukrainian defeat and far-right election victories on both sides of the Atlantic. Until then, while he certainly does not need to worry about his domestic image as a triumphant leader, his bets will continue and we should prepare for many more 26-versus-1 scenarios in the EU.

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons / Canva
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