Analysis: Ukraine war has both blindsided and empowered Orban

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hungary has found itself in a delicate geopolitical position.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the Hungarian government has become the most Russia-friendly NATO and European Union member.

Orban, the poster child for illiberal populism in Europe, has looked to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s style of governance as an attractive alternative to Western European-style democracy. The two men have had 13 meetings over the years – the most recent taking place just weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Orban at the time was dismissive of talk about a looming war while stressing the importance of Budapest and Moscow’s close ties.

Hungarian-Russian ties in recent years have grown in non-ideational ways, too. Landlocked Hungary depends on Russian energy supplies, receiving

approximately 80 percent of its gas and more than 50 percent of its oil from Russia. The two countries also maintain important relations in the banking and tourism sectors.

Going back to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Hungary framed Russia’s previous violations of Ukrainian sovereignty as an issue beyond its jurisdiction. As Orban saw it, Russian actions in Ukraine, a country not in NATO, did not concern Hungary’s responsibilities as a member of the Western alliance. He dealt with friction between NATO, Ukraine and Russia through a “strategic calmness” doctrine. Budapest also firmly stood against Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO.

A delicate balancing act

Budapest’s posture towards the war in Ukraine has been somewhat complicated and rests on a carefully balanced approach.

On one hand, Hungary quickly condemned the invasion and did not veto some EU sanctions on Moscow. The Hungarian government has also opened its eastern border to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict. Additionally, the deployment of NATO troops to the alliance’s eastern flank via Hungary is another area where Budapest has cooperated with, rather than obstructed, NATO-led efforts to counter Russia.

On the other hand, Orban’s government has stood against EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas, pledging to block them and ultimately making the bloc water down its sanctions package.

At the same time, Hungary has also refused to suspend the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Plant, which Russia’s state-owned nuclear power supplier Rosatom finances. Additionally, Budapest has opposed sending arms to Ukraine and forced the EU into not sanctioning the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.

Russian media platforms have focused on Orban’s opposition to arms transfers to Ukraine to shed light on NATO’s internal rifts since the eruption of the war.

The Hungarian government’s balanced reaction to the Ukrainian crisis “reflects Orban’s overall ideological position halfway between Brussels and the Kremlin, as well as Hungary’s economic position halfway between EU subsidies and Russian fossil fuel sales”, John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, told Al Jazeera.

“[Orban] enjoys pitting the powers against each other to the benefit of Hungary.”

Hungary’s decision to play a relatively small role in supporting Ukraine logistically has decreased the likelihood of Budapest ever being a future target of Moscow’s vengeance. Thus, avoiding major damage to Budapest-Moscow relations amid this war has served the interests of Orban and his country, analysts say.

But staying on good terms with Putin’s government post-February 24 has hurt Hungary’s standing in NATO and the EU. Perceptions of Budapest being too Russia-friendly since the war broke out have upset even Hungary’s fellow Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

“The ties between [Hungary and Russia] are being put to the test and the Hungarian prime minister appears to be succeeding in keeping his relationship with Russia relatively intact despite pressure from European neighbours,” Theodore Karasik, a fellow for Russian and Middle Eastern Affairs at the Jamestown Foundation, told Al Jazeera.

Hungary’s domestic politics amid the war

Orban’s approach to the Ukrainian crisis seems to have benefitted him, at least domestically. In April, the Hungarian leader’s party Fidesz secured a fourth term in a landslide re-election. “In a war, most people look for strong leadership,” Istvan Gyarmati, a former Hungarian ambassador who serves as the president of the International Centre for Democratic Transition, told Al Jazeera.

“They don’t look for change in leadership, especially when the alternative – the Hungarian opposition – doesn’t look strong … It was divided. They voted for the current government for reasons – one of them being the war … There is no doubt that the war has strengthened the government in Hungary.”

In Orban’s victory speech, he told his supporters they were the victims of the international left, bureaucrats in Brussels, George Soros, foreign media and “even the Ukrainian president”. Then he and Putin communicated privately, adding to Western governments’ perceptions of Orban being too close to the Kremlin.

Minority issues

Tensions between Budapest and Kyiv help one understand Hungary’s positioning vis-a-vis this conflict. Despite Hungary having always been a supporter of Ukrainian independence and bilateral ties improving, the issue of Ukraine’s roughly 150,000-strong Hungarian minority was “always a little cloud over their relations”, according to Gyarmati.

Legislation previously passed by Ukrainian lawmakers restricting the use of non-Ukrainian languages caused friction between Kyiv and Budapest. Although the legislation targeted the use of the Russian language in Ukraine, Gyarmati said that “there was some collateral damage on all other minority languages [including Hungarian] in Ukraine.”

Then, after the war broke out, the tensions over Hungarian minority rights in Ukraine contributed to a vicious circle in bilateral relations, with Kyiv questioning Budapest’s determination to stand with Ukraine against international aggression.

Prior to the invasion, the aspirations of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority to again be part of one nation-state with their fellow ethnic Hungarians led to little tension with the Ukrainian government. But after February 24, the minority group’s yearnings have contributed to major Ukrainian concerns over ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine being susceptible to Kremlin propaganda coming from Hungary.

Such dynamics, observers say, create a sense among officials in Kyiv that Orban is a troublemaker who capitalises on the grievances of the minority group in Ukraine in ways that further challenge President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government to maintain unity against Russia’s aggression.

To date, Orban has insisted on keeping his country out of Europe’s gravest post-1945 security crisis. Looking ahead, Hungary is likely to try to convince fellow EU members to take steps to negotiate with Russia with the aim of reaching a ceasefire, believing that a continuation of this war will be too devastating for all of Europe.

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