Orbán's Hungary: a Russian Ally?

June 14, 2023
Hungary's ruling party derives political gain from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with a consistent alignment with Russian propaganda.

Relations between Ukraine and Hungary were tense way before 2022 due to Budapest’s resentment of Ukraine’s 2017 language law. However, after Russia's full-scale invasion began, the bilateral relations deteriorated drastically. Nowadays, Hungary is regarded as the EU's most pro-Russian country, frequently defying the West's collective stance towards Russia.

What is going on between the two neighbouring countries amid the Russo-Ukrainian war?

Hungary and Ukraine. Source: Wikipedia

Manipulating with Ukrainian Hungarians

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has ruled Hungary since 2010, continues to make statements that infuriate Ukrainians and others around the world.

He referred to Ukraine as a "non-existent" state in financial terms, a "no man's land" akin to Afghanistan, endorsed the Chinese peace plan, and called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia.

He also stated that he could not imagine a victory over a nuclear state, and called Hungary the only European state that openly supported peace in Ukraine.

He reasoned that "part of Ukraine used to be a historical Hungarian land," and ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine are also dying in the war.

Hungarian Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, didn't lag too far behind with his own take on the events.

"The Hungarian people have already paid an extremely high price for this war," he wrote in response to President Zelenskyy's criticism of Hungary's stance during the war.

Szijjártó was referring to Ukrainian citizens of Hungarian origin who are also defending Ukraine. There is, however, a certain logic behind this constant reference to ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine.

According to Dmytro Tuzhanskyi, director of the Institute for Central European Strategy, Russia's war on Ukraine has become yet another issue instrumentalized by Hungary's ruling party to maintain power.

Previously, the Fidesz party stoked fears about migrants, the LGBTQ and gender "threat", George Soros and other issues. Now, they've incorporated Russia's war in Ukraine into the existing grand narrative about defending Hungary against external threats and taking care of the Hungarian nation, both at home and abroad. 

Hungarian politicians and pro-government media speak of the "coercive" mobilization of ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine as if mobilization under martial law could be carried out in another way or as if ethnic Hungarians were treated differently than their compatriots of different ethnic backgrounds. It gives the impression that the Ukrainian government uses "disloyal" ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine as scapegoats and sends them to the frontlines as cannon fodder.

This narrative is consistent with one of the main Russian narratives, spreading fear in Ukraine to disrupt mobilization. Hungarian leaders appear to use it for their political dividends within the country, but on a larger scale, it also plays into the hands of Russian propaganda. There is, however, no evidence that ethnic Hungarians are treated differently than any other Ukrainian citizens. 

Dmytro Tuzhanskyi tells UkraineWorld that when Orbán and his team speak of "Hungarian land that now belongs to Ukraine" they use such allusions to revanchism to engage the ultra-right electorate and compete with their rivals on this flank, the extremist Our Homeland Movement. Its representative Dóra Dúró who is the deputy speaker of the Hungarian Parliament stated in an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia that Ukraine's peaceful accession to NATO is only possible if Kyiv and Moscow reach an agreement.

She also mentioned the alleged discrimination of ethnic minorities in Ukraine and called on the Ukrainian government to provide Zakarpattia and other regions with autonomy.

"Stronghold of peace"

Another pillar of the Hungarian government's narrative is peace. Hungary does not deliver weapons to Ukraine and even forbade their transit through its territory, citing concern for Hungarians living in Ukraine as justification. However, this situation is far more complex than it first seems.

Although there is no transit through the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, weapons can technically be delivered to Hungary and then transported to Ukraine via the nearest Slovak, Romanian, or Polish borders. Hungarian independent investigative newspaper Átlátszó.hu described cases in which Hungarian territory was used to transport weapons to Ukraine. According to the report, French military helicopters arrived at Győr-Pér airport in Western Hungary, flew to Rzeszów in Poland, and then were transported overland to Ukraine.

Budapest's official position was criticized by Western allies as well.

US Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman said there is an "unfortunate eagerness to talk about a fake culture war in Hungary" while the real war is taking place next door, killing thousands.

He also expressed concern about deepening and expanding relations between Hungary and Russia and pointed to five visits by Szijjártó to Russia since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Furthermore, he cited the fact that Szijjártó hadn't even spoken once with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba during this time.

Szijjártó responded to Pressman's remarks by accusing the Americans of pushing Hungary into the "propaganda of war," although Hungary belongs to the "peace camp," according to Szijjártó.

Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, and Péter Szijjártó, Hungarian Foreign Minister, meeting in Moscow in July 2022 to discuss Budapest’s request for more Russian gas. Source: Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service/AP

The reaction of Viktor Orbán to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s declaration in Kyiv that “Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO”

Hungarian real stance 

Despite the political controversy, Hungary does support Ukraine in certain aspects. It sends humanitarian aid, trains Ukrainian military medics and treats injured Ukrainian veterans. However, in terms of assisting Ukraine, it also opposes Brussels and advocates for the separate provision of aid, rather than centralized actions at the EU level.

Nevertheless, Hungary committed 187 million euros to be granted to Ukraine within an 18 billion euro EU loan.

Indeed, Russian influence in Hungary has become a serious security concern.

In October 2022, it was the subject of a hearing at the Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union. Director of the Political Capital Institute and senior fellow of the CEPA, Dr. Péter Krekó, stated that Russian informational influence is now dominant in the mainstream, making Hungary a unique case within the EU.

According to him, Hungary has the most centralized media environment in the European Union (2019 data showed that 79% of the media was concentrated in pro-Fidesz hands) and has become practically an "informational autocracy," where the state can exert influence through information manipulation.

He noted that, while Fidesz MEPs have supported the majority of resolutions condemning the Russian invasion during plenary votes, domestic narratives are painting a diametrically different picture of Ukraine and the West -- particularly the United States and Brussels -- as the main source of danger rather than Russia.

It's no wonder why narratives spread by pro-government media about the so-called genocide of ethnic Russians in Donbas, the "CIA-led Kyiv junta", on supposed secret American-Ukrainian biolabs, or on the idea that Ukraine was somehow threatening Russia with developing nuclear weapons, influence the Hungarian public opinion.

Perilous game

The Hungarian government has become the hostage of its own anti-Western narrative, which often coincides, intentionally or not, with the Russian position. Playing in such a dual game harms not only bilateral relations but also the Hungarian ethnic minority in Ukraine, the fate with which the Hungarian government claims to be so preoccupied with.

Hungarian support for "peace" in Ukraine appears to be rather a political ploy, while Ukraine fights to restore a real and just peace.

Andriy Avramenko
Analyst and Journalist at UkraineWorld