While most European countries support the struggling Ukraine not only humanitarianly but also militarily, Hungary is holding back. The country initially supported the EU common position, which unequivocally condemned Russia’s aggression, but now Budapest clearly states that it no longer refuses to go against Russia.
Hungary would veto EU sanctions against Russian gas supplies, a no-fly zone over Ukraine and even an EU peacekeeping mission. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, who incidentally holds the Order of Friendship, one of the Kremlin’s highest honors, on Monday called the aforementioned actions against Moscow “Red line„. He justified his remarks by saying that it was necessary to prevent the spread of war outside Ukraine and NATO’s direct conflict with Russia.
According to the Ukrainian side, the Russians are trying to undermine stability in Transcarpathian Ukraine, while using the Hungarians there.
However, his statement was immediately condemned by Oleh Nikolenko, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry:
“Peace and security in Hungary cannot be guaranteed without peace and security in Ukraine,” he said, adding that “not provoking Russia” was a common argument that actually gave Moscow more room for aggression. “We certainly do not wish anyone the horror Ukrainians are currently experiencing because of the war. At the same time, it is a mistake to think that Hungary, like any other European country, exists in a vacuum. Our state protects now really NATO’s eastern borders,” Nikolenko told the Hungarians.
Hungarian minority in danger?
For Budapest to have good reason to reconsider its opposition to tougher sanctions, Nikolenko made one more argument. According to him, there is evidence that Transcarpathian Ukraine, home to a large Hungarian minority, is run by the Russian secret police FSB, which aims to disrupt the situation in the region, even using the Hungarian factor. Interfax reported suspected suspicious activity on Tuesday. In this context, Nikolenko called on Hungary to condemn Russia’s provocation and openly oppose efforts to incite inter-ethnic hatred in Ukraine.
The current history of strained relations between Hungary and Ukraine over the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia dates back to at least 2015. Just a year after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and helped stoke war on the Donbass, reports said that Budapest had started secretly and against Ukrainian laws to distribute passports to local ethnic Hungarians.
Viktor Orbán, with his policy of distributing passports to Hungarians who remained abroad after the disintegration of Austria-Hungary after the First World War, evokes negative emotions not only in Ukraine but also in other neighboring countries. It was the incident of handing out passports in Ukraine just a year after the Russian invasion that raised questions about how far he is prepared to go in his national policy.
Energy security first
In early March, about a week after the Russian invasion began, Budapest said it would not veto European Union sanctions against Moscow. “As for the sanctions, we will not veto them. We will not prevent the EU from imposing sanctions on Russia, the unity of the EU is now the most fundamental”, reassured the Prime Minister then-controversial Hungarian Viktor Orbán.
On the one hand, he himself admitted that the outbreak of war in Ukraine had greatly changed Hungary’s relations with the Kremlin. However, he refused to stop buying natural gas from Russia. Likewise, according to the Hungarian Prime Minister, the sanctions should not jeopardize the cooperation between Budapest and the Russian company Rosatom on the extension of the Paks nuclear power plant in central Hungary. “Without Paks, we would have to import even more Russian gas at an even higher price,” Orban said.
Elections Hungary awaits elections
Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán has long been famous for his teasing criticism of the European Union and, on the contrary, for his supportive attitude towards Moscow. The media even ranks him among Putin’s main allies in Europe. In addition to active energy cooperation, the unusual relations between Hungary and Russia also manifested themselves, for example, during the corona crisis. Budapest then bought the Russian vaccine Sputnik without its prior approval by European regulators.
Today, however, the “friendship” of Orbán and Putin has been damaged by the war caused by the war in Ukraine, and the Hungarian government has begun to move very carefully between Moscow and Brussels in order not to “scatter” it on both sides.
Prime Minister Orbán himself has preferred more restrained rhetoric over the past four weeks, despite his government previously signing a package of European sanctions against Russia, backing joint EU-NATO action. Orbán’s vague position on the Russian-Ukrainian war is now reflected in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Hungary in early April. The electoral campaign of the ruling Fidesz party is thus conducted in the spirit of popular slogans such as the barrel, in order to avoid conflict. Therefore, unlike many other European countries, Budapest does not send any weapons to Ukraine and does not even allow the transport of military equipment to the country through its territory. It’s just a question of whether Orbán’s balancing dance on two chairs in the election will pay off or not.