Hungary is an outlier to the West’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. While Hungary has agreed on most EU sanctions against Russia, it has done little to diversify its energy dependence on Moscow or support Ukraine. In December 2022, Hungary initially blocked an 18 billion euro ($19 billion) EU financial package for Ukraine and in June 2023, voted against funds for the European Union’s long-term commitment to bolster Ukrainian security. Also in June, Hungary received from Russia eleven Ukrainian prisoners of war who were ethnic Hungarians and denied Ukrainian consular officials access to them.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary has also been an exception in European politics. Hungary opposes the European Union on immigration policy while Brussels has sanctioned Hungary over rule-of-law reforms, to name just a few quarrels. In the past six years, 60 percent of all vetoes in EU affairs have come from Hungary.

Why is an EU and NATO member resistant to supporting Ukraine? Are Orban’s policies the result of Russian political warfare or are they those of an independent leader protecting the sovereignty and economy of his country? What are the sources of Hungarian conduct?

Geography and history shape Hungary’s foreign policy. Being a land-locked country, it is hard for Hungary to diversify its energy sources, but Hungary’s geographic position also provides security with regards to the Russo-Ukraine War.  Hungary has issues with both Russia and Ukraine but it is doubtful Russia’s army could ever reach Hungary’s borders. Conflict with Ukraine is based on Kyiv’s treatment of its Hungarian minority population. This leads to the second driver of Hungarian foreign policy—history, specifically, the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

The Treaty of Trianon ended World War I between the Allies and Hungary and reshaped her borders to their current dimensions. The treaty created Hungarian minority communities in today’s Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine from parts of the Kingdom of Hungary—the treaty also gave Romania the present-day territory of Moldova. The Hungarian minority issue and other aspects of the treaty are key to understanding Hungary’s relations with Ukraine, the West, and Russia. Trianon deprived Hungary of two-thirds of its land and one- third of its population and remains a source of Hungarian discontent with the West since it was signed by London, Paris, and Washington but not by Moscow. The Russians never tried to “Russify” Hungarians like they tried elsewhere, but Hungarian communities have faced “Ukrainianization, Slovakization, and Romanianization.” Ukraine mistreats its Hungarian minority by persecuting its leaders and suppressing its language, although a controversial Ukrainian language law has just been suspended due to pressure from the Council of Europe. The language issue is a red line for Hungary, because it is about the survival of the Hungarians as a distinct nation that will not be assimilated.

Hungary wants its  people outside of the country to have the freedom to use their own language and preserve their cultural heritage. It is extremely important to Hungarians because many cultural sites in Hungary have been destroyed in World War II and much of its cultural heritage is now outside the country.

Hungary’s geography imposes limitations on energy sources because of the location of pipelines and the lack of a port to receive liquefied natural gas.  Russian-Hungarian relations are “interest-based” not ideological. Russia does conduct information operations against Hungary as Facebook trolls put out Russian news for Hungarian viewers mixing true and false stories to push Moscow’s narratives. Russian attempts to exploit Hungary’s diaspora concerns via false flag operations. Hungarians do not have a cultural affinity towards Russians,  but the Russian threat to Hungary is far away while the threat from neighboring countries against Hungarians is closer.

The driving force for Hungarian policy, foreign or domestic, is Orban and to understand Hungarian statecraft, one must understand Orban’s beliefs. Orban believes that Hungary must regain sovereignty it lost by joining the European Union and NATO. He will not leave either organization because of their economic or security benefits, but wants an “a la carte” relationship to pick and choose what he likes from each. Twenty years ago, Orban established a special relationship with Putin to counterbalance Hungary’s Western associations. The benefits of this special relationship were cheap gas, bank loans, and help with nuclear power, while Hungary refrained from criticizing Russia. Orban believes that his special relationship will make Hungary an important pivot between Russia and Europe. However, this strategy is a failure internationally since no Western leader trusts Orban but it is a success domestically. Orban promised voters that he would keep them out of war and protect Hungary’s economy with cheap gas from Russia. The voters responded by giving him and Fidesz an overwhelming victory in the April 2022 elections.

Orban and his supporters accept Putin’s narrative that Ukraine is not a real country. EU partners are portrayed as pro-war and the United States is attacked not only over Ukraine but over social issues. These arguments work well with Hungarians. With the opposition splintered since the last election, there are few counterarguments. For the opposition, being pro-Ukraine is no longer a winning strategy, which is a miscalculation although pro-Ukrainian demonstrations draw few people.

Orban has an ideological mission to change Hungary. His pro-Russian orientation must be understood as a rejection of Western liberal values. He is creating an illiberal state in Hungary by giving voters a package of Hungarian exceptionalism, national pride, and the fear of the other (e.g., immigrants, meddling foreigners, or progressive social trends) and portrays himself as protecting Hungary against them.

Regarding the influence of history on Hungarian policy, some of the right-wing electorate may be influenced by a narrative of how badly the West has treated Hungary, but Trianon is a secondary influence on voter behavior. Hungary was not the only country on the wrong side in World War I that lost territory. Ukraine may not respect minority rights in schools, but its recent language law was aimed at Russians, not Hungarians, and if it wants to join the European Union, it must change this regulation. The number of Hungarians in Ukraine is smaller than the number in Serbia or Slovakia, where there are also issues, but Orban maintains good relations with Serbia’s president and takes a moderate path with Slovakia knowing he needs allies among the Visegrád Group (i.e., Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary) in his battles with Brussels. Orban’s ideology, more than Hungary’s geography, prevents energy diversification. There are options and Hungary could follow the lead of other EU states. Orban’s unwillingness to try is indicative of his belief that Russia will win the war and its gas trade with Europe will return to normal.

Europe should not mistake Hungary’s government for its people. The Orban’s government is temporary but not short-lived, meaning the EU should not expect drastic changes in Hungarian policy and instead should reach out to possible allies in the government to affect gradual change. Hungary helps Ukraine with fuel shipments and humanitarian aid and has increased defense spending but Hungary’s foreign policy is driven by its interests. The main interest for Hungary’s political elites is sovereignty followed by economics. Hungary’s leadership believes it is protecting the country from EU interference in internal affairs. Its economic interests are to maintain the flow of money and cheap energy from Russia.  Hungary’s economic relationship with Russia is corrupt because of its lack of transparency, as in the case of the nuclear power plant contracts. This corruption affects the government’s view of the media, independent judiciary, and rule of law, because all three threaten a corrupt system. To change Hungary’s policies, corruption must first be ended. The connection between Hungary’s diaspora and its foreign policy is more political than historical. Approximately a million diaspora Hungarians have Hungarian passports, vote in Hungary’s elections, and 90 percent usually vote for Fidesz, hence their importance.

Hungary’s position as an outlier in Europe is confusing. It is a NATO and EU member often at odds with both over policy and who sees its sovereignty threatened not by Russia but by the Euro-Atlantic institutions designed to protect it. What really influences Hungarian statecraft? Is it ghosts from the Treaty of Trianon or is it the vision of a leader with a personal relationship with a dictator who regularly threatens Hungary’s neighbors and allies?

Both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush helped end the Cold War and helped Hungary regain its sovereignty from the Soviet Union. But let us remember that Soviet soldiers liberated Hungary from the Nazis. Hungary remains fixed between East and West and unable or unwilling to move in either direction because it currently enjoys the benefits from being on both sides.



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