Russia hopes to use Hungary to oppose Western sanctions - analysis

Russia has been trying to spotlight Hungary as the country that is breaking away from Europe in an effort to get Hungary on the Russian side.

 HUNGARIAN PRIME Minister Viktor Orban sits before taking the oath of office in parliament in Budapest, in May, following his latest re-election.  (photo credit: BERNADETT SZABO / REUTERS)
HUNGARIAN PRIME Minister Viktor Orban sits before taking the oath of office in parliament in Budapest, in May, following his latest re-election.
(photo credit: BERNADETT SZABO / REUTERS)

Russia is counting on Hungary to help it oppose sanctions the West has imposed since Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year.

In several articles at Russian state media TASS, the role of Hungary has been spotlighted. The goal of Moscow is to portray Hungary as breaking with the rest of Europe. This is a classic Moscow policy to divide Europe. Since the European Union became increasingly relevant on the world stage, and since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, Russia has sought to divide European countries. This has taken the form of messaging, support for those seen as opposing the idea of a unified Europe, and also stoking divisions. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told parliament on Monday he would hold ‘national consultations’ in order to find out what the Hungarians really think about the sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia,” TASS media reported, based on what it says was a report in the Magyar Nemzet newspaper. 

"The sanctions [against Russia] were introduced in an undemocratic way. It was a decision by the bureaucrats in Brussels, for which the European peoples are now paying. We need to know the opinion of the people. For the first time in Europe, in Hungary, we will ask for the opinion of the people concerning the sanctions…National consultations will be launched. The Hungarian people will be able to express their opinion whether they support them and if they are in favor of introducing new ones," Orban said, the report said. 

This is the second recent article in Russian state media highlighting Hungary’s stance. “Large-scale restrictive measures imposed by the European Union against Russia because of the situation around Ukraine cause great harm to Europe and Europeans, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter Szijjarto said in an interview with TASS on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly,” the Russian media reported last week.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin makes an address, dedicated to a military conflict with Ukraine, in Moscow, Russia, in this still image taken from video released September 21, 2022. (credit: Russian Presidential Press Service/Kremlin via REUTERS) Russian President Vladimir Putin makes an address, dedicated to a military conflict with Ukraine, in Moscow, Russia, in this still image taken from video released September 21, 2022. (credit: Russian Presidential Press Service/Kremlin via REUTERS)
 

"If you look at the sanction policy of the European Union, not in an ideological not in a political but in a professional manner, then it's obvious that it is extremely painful to Europe, extremely painful. Inflation is skyrocketing, energy prices are in the skies, price for commodities food is increasing like hell. So this sanction policy is definitely extremely harmful to Europe and European people," Szijjarto said. 

Ukraine has been outraged by this stance. In early September, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine slammed a statement of the Foreign Minister of Hungary Szijjártó that through sanctions, Europeans are somehow forced to pay for a war they aren’t responsible for.

The logic here is that a tough winter lies ahead, inflation and other concerns are forefront in Europe. Blaming sanctions for this phenomenon is one way to look at it; but others would argue that Russia is at fault for starting the war. Hungary’s position, apparently, is that by pushing sanctions and support for Ukraine, the West has expanded the repercussions.  

"No one should forget: Ukrainians pay with their lives so that people in the rest of Europe do not see the horrors of war. Russian aggression is a hybrid. It is not only about the military. The Russians attack Ukrainian cities and villages with cruise missiles, tanks, and EU countries with sky-high gas prices and propaganda. Let me remind you that Russia started blackmailing European consumers with energy resources supplies and a high price tag as early as November 2021 - three months before the full-scale invasion in Ukraine," Oleg Nikolenko, the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote on Facebook in early September.  

"Russia's attack on Ukraine is an attack on the entire democratic world, democratic values, the right to be yourself and to determine your own future.”

Ukraine

This divide between whether it is “our war” or not is a divide in European history going back more than a 100 years. Countries have always tried to decide whether aggression by a powerful country is one that requires collective action or not. From Russia’s point of view, it would be preferable if countries not act collectively, so that Russia can do what it wants in Ukraine the way it did what it wanted to Georgia and Chechnya and other places and countries. Moscow would prefer to pick countries off one by one.  

Moscow today hopes that Hungary’s current leadership can help articulate its stance. Moscow knows it has an uphill battle in this regard in the West, but Hungary has a foot in both camps. Hungary is facing stiff criticism from Europe over its alleged authoritarian slide, and there are calls to withhold funds from Hungary. Orban has said that the sanctions on Russia have backfired.

Hungary appears to have few allies in Europe. Some commentators thought the rise of the Right in a new election in Italy might give Budapest some headwind, but an article at The Guardian points out that the new Italian leadership appears to be pro-NATO and against Russian “aggression.”

The article notes also “nor is there any sign that Poland, once Hungary’s great ally, would welcome such a move. The first to congratulate Giorgia Meloni was the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki. Brothers of Italy is aligned with the Polish PiS in the European parliament – but Warsaw remains at the helm of Nato’s anti-Putin alliance.”  

A week ago a report at Euro News said that “the European Commission on Sunday called for an estimated €7.5 billion in European funds to be withheld from Hungary over corruption concerns. Commissioner Johannes Hahn, in charge of Budget and Administration, said the figure amounts to 65% of the commitments for three operational programs under cohesion policy and about a third of cohesion funds the country received from the EU budget.”

Clearly a denouement may be coming

Hungary is being pressured by other European countries. Russia wants Hungary’s backing and some other friends and allies in Europe. It works with Serbia, but it has few open friends in the continent.

An article in 2016 at the European Council on Foreign Relations said that Russia could count on some sympathy from “on the far right, the AfD, FPÖ, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s Front National, Italy’s Northern League, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (VB). On the far left, the most pro-Russian parties are Cyprus’s AKEL, Germany’s Die Linke, the Czech Republic’s KSCM, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza. The Italian Five Star Movement and the Human Shield Party in Croatia also belong to the pro-Russian camp.”

An article at the EU Observer in April suggested that “EU lawmakers have accused far-right and populist political parties of serving Putin's objective to undermine EU democracy — either for money or political gains. These include Italy's League, Germany's Alternative for Germany, Austria's Freedom Party, Hungary's Fidesz and the French National Front party.”

But even with that mosaic, critics of support for Ukraine are not rising in Europe yet, and Hungary appears one of the lone voices. A winter of discontent in Europe, the weakening of the British Pound and other issues could of course upend this trend and Moscow might find that Hungary has weathered the storm.