The Myth of the Orbán-Putin Nexus
Gergely Varga*, 19. Oktober 2022
Orbán’s realpolitik has always been rooted in the defence of Hungarian national interests and sovereignty; not to undermine the West but to steer it towards a more responsible and sustainable direction.
While the pursuit of Hungarian national interests has always been at the heart of Orbán’s Russia policy, contrary to the prevailing narrative, undermining or betraying the West has never been an option for him. On the contrary, he pursues prudent Western realpolitik, not idealism.
As the war in Ukraine continues, hardly a day passes without the Western media portraying Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as Putin’s best friend in Europe. According to prevailing Western perceptions, with his call to peace negotiations over Ukraine, Orbán is just continuing his policies of the past twelve years of submission to Putin and undermining Western values and interests. This is a false account of Orbán’s view of Russia, however, which not only overlooks basic facts but fails to understand current Hungarian foreign policy. While Orbán’s realpolitik was always rooted in the defence of Hungarian national interests and sovereignty, it has never sought to undermine the West but steer it towards a more responsible and sustainable direction.
The origins of the Orbán-Putin rapprochement
After Orbán re-ascended to power in 2010, a rapprochement undeniably took place between the previously harsh Putin-critic Orbán and Vladimir Putin. Western credibility had taken a great hit in the eyes of conservative-leaning Hungarians in 2006 after Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitted to have lied “day and night” to voters about the Hungarian economy and then oversaw brutal police crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators, all the while Western elites largely remained silent. Not that the Hungarian national-conservative Right had any great illusions by then about Western elites, having experienced their turning of a blind eye on the structural dominance of the ex-communist and liberal Hungarian elites in the political, economic, and cultural sphere from the great changes of 1989 up until 2010.
A major geopolitical experience regarding Western strategy for Orbán dates back to the Georgian-Russia war of 2008. With the absence of any Western response to the Russian aggression it became clear that NATO’s Bucharest statement on future membership for Ukraine and Georgia was just an empty promise. The West is either unwilling to confront—or incapable of confronting—Russia regarding its relations with its direct neighbours, and the West continues to priviledge idealistic principles over pragmatic realpolitik, all at the expense of Eastern European nations.
Another eye-opening geopolitical development was that of Russia’s use of its gas against Ukraine during 2007-2009 and related energy-politics. While the Nabucco project—a proposed gas pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Austria—was meant to end the dependency of Central Europe and the Balkans on Russian energy by bringing gas from the Caspian basin to Europe, the project was undermined not only by Russian actions but by concurrent Western priorities, such as U.S. Middle East policy.
These experiences demonstrated more clearly to Orbán the limits of Western politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Let’s not forget that Orbán began his rapprochement with Putin at the time of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia and during expanding Western European-Russian economic cooperation. Within such an international context, Orbán sought to expand Hungarian economic relations not just with Russia but with other economically growing Eastern countries. The underlying pillars of the Orbán government’s ‘Eastern Opening’ policy from 2010 was to diversify Hungary’s external economic relations, enhance Hungarian energy security, and make every major power interested in Hungary’s economic success—not to switch sides, of which Orbán is often wrongly accused.
The limits of Hungarian-Russian cooperation
While seeking to expand economic cooperation with Moscow, Orbán also aimed to decrease Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia, primarily in regard to gas. In 2010, 80-90% of gas came from Russia through one pipeline crossing Ukraine. To diversify gas sources and routes, since 2010 Hungary has built interconnectors to all neighbouring countries, co-financed an LNG terminal in Croatia, supported energy projects of the Three Seas Initiative, and made considerable attempts to build access to Black Sea off-shore gas reserves in cooperation with Romania—a project that only failed due to Romanian domestic political and environmental hurdles. In addition, one of the first major economic achievements of the first Orbán government was retaking 25% of the ownership of MOL in 2011, Hungary’s flagship energy company, which was threatened with hostile Russian takeover.
Allowing the Russian Rosatom Paks II nuclear power project has often been cited as an example of Orbán’s bias towards Putin. However, this narrative fails to consider the favourable economic, financial conditions and technical-safety aspects of the Russian-led project. Western criticism became quieter after some major Western companies were granted a considerable slice in the project. Furthermore, when it comes to the volume of economic trade, Hungary continued to pale in comparison to similar German-Russian, Italian-Russian, and Dutch-Russian trade activity.
In the geopolitical domain, Orbán has never ceased to emphasize the importance of NATO to Hungarian and, more broadly, European security. He has even called for the establishment of a European army. Although Hungary was never among the most hawkish of NATO countries, it did launch a comprehensive defence modernization plan in the region already in 2017, and gradually increased its defence spending to reach the 2% NATO standard by 2023. Hungary also contributed to strengthening the Alliance’s Eastern flank after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, including its support for the Enhanced Forward Presence, participation in the Baltic Air Policing, and the conclusion of the U.S.-Hungarian defence agreement in 2019.
Other controversial decisions of Orbán included the move of the Russian-affiliated International Investment Bank to Budapest. Without going into details, one doesn’t have to be an intelligence expert to see that using such an exposed institution for intelligence operations in the middle of a NATO country would primarily pose risks for Russia, not Hungary or its allies. Furthermore, such a political “scandal” simply doesn’t reach the threshold of strategic significance for Hungarian security or for its allies. Compare this case with London’s decades long history of welcoming and managing the billions of assets of Russian oligarchs.
It is Orbán’s values that have probably received the most Western attacks in his political career. The oft-stated comparison of Orbán with Putin regarding ‘authoritarianism,’ ‘illiberalism’ and ‘nationalism’ has become a trope of liberal intellectuals. Without diving into a detailed analysis of the Hungarian democracy, let’s just quote Orbán from his famous speech about ‘illiberal democracy’ from 2014:
Hungary’s citizens are expecting Hungary’s leaders to find, formulate and forge a new method of Hungarian state organisation that, following the liberal state and the era of liberal democracy and while of course respecting the values of Christianity, freedom and human rights, can again make the Hungarian community competitive … The new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom, and I could list a few more, but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organisation, but instead includes a different, special, national approach.
One would be hard pressed to find any similar thoughts about freedom and human rights from Putin over the course of his long career. The main point is that anyone seeking to describe Orbán or contemporary Hungarian politics through the lens of Putinism simply doesn’t understand anything about Hungary.
A call for peace in Ukraine: realpolitik instead of illusions
Contrary to false accusations that he has been ambiguous about Russia’s war in Ukraine, Orbán unequivocally condemned Russia for its aggression against Ukraine already on the morning of February 24th, the day Russia began its all-out war. Orbán repeated this statement numerous times in the following weeks. Since the invasion began, Hungary has not only approved seven EU sanctions agreements but as an EU member has contributed to the arming of Ukraine through the EU Peace Facility, provided Ukraine with financial support and other aid, took care of Ukrainian wounded soldiers, and contributed to NATO’s deterrence and defence measures. Meanwhile, Hungary executed the largest humanitarian operation of its history, accepting and taking care of more than half a million Ukrainian refugees—an extraordinary feat for a country with a population of under 10 million citizens.
Nevertheless, Hungary has been portrayed as Putin’s trojan horse in the EU and NATO primarily because of Hungary’s refusal of energy sanctions and its calls for peace negotiations. Orbán’s approach is rooted in realpolitik, however, not appeasement to Moscow’s will. Naturally, the pursuit of legitimate Hungarian national interests are crucial in these deliberations. However, the approach is also justifiable through moral and strategic considerations.
First, the West will only be able to continue to support Ukraine if its own economy is not gravely weakened, and the current economic war with Russia threatens just that. Second, it is misleading to suggest that the only alternative to the current Western strategy is a complete surrender to Russian demands and cessation of all support for Ukraine. Third, while there is no guarantee that it would be possible to reach a ceasefire with Putin in the near term, this doesn’t justify the complete absence of any serious Western effort for diplomacy. Fourth, ending the fighting, which causes so much suffering and destruction, is itself an important moral objective.
As for Western strategy, the main question isn’t whether European sanctions hurt Russia (they do), but what strategy best serves Europe’s long-term interests and who is willing to bear greater costs for Ukraine. Putting aside unrealistic scenarios of a near term Russian military defeat or a rebellion against Vladimir Putin, prudent analyses suggests that Putin might be able to sustain his war for months, if not years, in the current economic environment, and he is probably able to politically survive even a greater recession in the near term. At the same time, it is highly questionable whether many European countries could politically and strategically afford a significant economic recession. Moreover, major energy disruptions in the winter, the break-down of complete industries due to gas shortages, and other colossal challenges—the pandemic, high inflation, value-chain disruptions, China, climate-change, migration pressures, just to name a few—all indicate the need to operate cautiously and prudently.
The most likely scenario in the war over the coming months is a bloody stalemate with occasional modest advances on either side, but hopes of driving out Russia from the Donbas and South Ukraine are probably naive. A modest increase in Western weapons deliveries to Kiev wouldn’t change the military balance on the battlefield. A drastic increase, however, could lead to a nuclear war with Moscow.
Given all the strategic realities of the war, the current Western strategy will most likely only weaken Europe further without achieving military victory for Ukraine. Hence, opposing further energy sanctions and calling for peace negotiations is neither appeasement nor submission to Putin, but a pursuit of not only Hungarian but, more broadly, Western interests. In sum, while Orbán’s realpolitik towards Putin is rooted in Hungarian security perceptions, it also takes a prudent long view of Western strategic interests.
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* Gergely Varga ist Experte für Sicherheitspolitik, namentlich Europäische Sicherheit und transatlantische Beziehungen. Er ist Externer Forscher am Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade in Budapest.