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Hungary’s “Neutrality” in the Invasion of Ukraine – A Balancing Act Between Two Powers

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has arguably evoked the strongest expression of NATO unity in the past few decades, as almost all its members have pledged their support to Ukraine. The key word is almost, however, as one member, Hungary, has refused to support Ukraine by declaring neutrality. Although Orban has publicly justified this neutrality by explaining how it prevents Hungary’s entanglement in the war, justifications from authoritarian leaders are often falsified claims. Instead, Hungary’s sour relations with Ukraine and Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s amicable relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin illuminate why Orban is truly unwilling to support Ukraine. However, Orban cannot risk angering NATO and the European Union by outright supporting Russia, as he and his oligarchy friends cannot afford to have funds from the EU withheld and Hungary cannot afford to lose its military guarantees from NATO. Therefore, this “neutrality” declared by Orban is not neutrality by any means; it is a carefully orchestrated effort by Orban to not anger the West and continue to appease Putin at the same time.

Despite Orban’s justifications of avoiding war, one of the true and hidden reasons Hungary is unwilling to support Ukraine is their bitter diplomatic relations with this neighboring country. The poor relations between these two nations stem from the historical dispute over the ethnically Hungarian land of Carpathian Ruthenia, which is now Ukrainian territory. Ever since 1918, Hungary has not controlled that land, except for when they briefly occupied the territory during World War II. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Carpathian Ruthenia has been in the hands of the Ukrainians. Hungary has constantly claimed that Ukraine is suppressing the Hungarian minority in this region. Usually, Hungary has justified this accusation by pointing to laws that state everyone in Ukraine must learn to speak the Ukrainian language. These negative relations have had consequences in the past, as Hungary has opposed ministerial meetings between NATO and Ukraine, so it comes as no surprise that this is partly why Hungary is unwilling to express solidarity with Ukraine. 

The most important hidden reason for this neutrality is Orban’s cozy relationship with Putin. For a while, Orban has justified his friendliness towards the Russian autocrat with Hungary’s geographical proximity to Russia. However, as with most illiberal leaders, this public justification is far from reality. The real reasons for Orban’s loyalty to Putin are Hungary’s reliance on Russian gas and Orban’s admiration of autocracies. Out of all the EU member states, Hungary is by far the most reliant on Russian gas, as 25% of all their energy comes from that alone. Throughout this conflict, Putin has limited gas flows to some European countries, so it is not surprising that Orban has taken actions of appeasement (like paying for the gas in Russian Rubles) to avoid losing this energy source. Perhaps more strikingly, however, is that Orban admires autocracies. Ever since his party, Fidesz, won a supermajority in 2010, Orban has been gradually revising the constitution to accumulate more power. As a result, he has the ability to appeal any judicial ruling to a friendly court to pass any legislation, has the power rule by decree when he declares a state of emergency (which he can do at any time), and has obliterated all independent media (which means only the state-overseen media remains). Therefore, it is no surprise that Orban cozies up to autocratic leaders like Putin. The most prominent example of this behavior is the building of the Paks Nuclear Plant (a project of the Russian company Rosatom) in Hungary. The project forces Hungary to take on heavy loans and it is largely unnecessary; the only “benefit” is that it brings Orban closer to Putin. Orban, who wants to ensure that he can receive future support from fellow autocratic nations like Russia, refuses to support Ukraine to maintain this close relationship. 

With sour Ukrainian relations and with positive Russian relations, Hungary would surely want to outright support Russia. However, Hungary is a NATO and EU member state, so going against them by supporting Russia could result in military and economic guarantees being withheld. This risk is certainly not worth taking, as Hungary’s army lacks considerable strength and Hungarian infrastructure (as well as Orban’s cronies) rely on EU funding. So, Hungary has had to officially condemn the invasion and has had to take some limited action. However, Orban does not want to sacrifice his amicable relationship with Putin either. Hence, Hungary’s neutrality is just a balancing act between the two powers, and Orban’s political, economic, military, and humanitarian actions reflect that. 

Orban’s contradictory political actions best prove how he is trying to maintain positive relations with both NATO and Putin. Even though Hungary officially condemned the invasion, Orban refused to go with the prime ministers of Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Poland to Ukraine to express solidarity. Orban, to not damage any friendly relations with Putin, does not want to personally associate himself with the support the West is showing. To use Hungary’s neutrality to please both sides, Orban also tried to host a peace summit between the two sides. By pretending to be a neutral mediator, he can appease everyone, as he can show NATO that he is a proponent of peace, but also show Putin that he is not involved in the support of Ukraine.

The limited economic action taken by Hungary proves that Orban is only willing to act against Russia to avoid angering his NATO and EU allies. Although Hungary did vote with the rest of the EU to kick Russia out of Swift, Hungary was the last EU country to comply. This means that Hungary only did this because of mounting pressure and frustration from the EU. The same thing has occurred with the dilemma over whether to place sanctions on Russia or not. Orban has said that he will not veto EU sanctions, which is good because the EU needs unanimous consent to accomplish anything. This contrasts with 2014, when Hungary vetoed sanctions against Russia when they annexed Crimea. Hungary is more willing to comply now than in 2014, which is interesting considering that the response from NATO and the EU has been much more forceful now. With NATO and the EU taking this crisis more seriously, Orban does not want to obstruct their goals because he cannot risk threatening Hungary’s position in NATO and the EU. However, despite this, Orban remains steadfast on vetoing any sanctions against Russian oil and gas. This is by far Russia’s largest export, so these sanctions could cripple its economy. Orban, afraid of losing his relations with Putin, is willing to go against the West if he fears his relations with Putin will be harmed too significantly. Most strikingly, Orban is refusing to stop the construction of the Paks Nuclear Plant, again proving he does not want to anger Putin as much as he does not want to anger NATO and the EU. 

The strongest and most direct response to any armed crisis is an expression of military support or force. Not surprisingly, Orban, who does not want to directly counter Putin, has taken absolutely zero military action. Orban has sent no military aid to Ukraine, saying this inaction prevents Hungary from becoming entangled in the war. He has even gone as far as not allowing any countries to send aid to Ukraine through Hungary. By doing this, Orban can show Putin that he has absolutely nothing to do with the support of Ukraine, as the aid is not even going through Hungary. Even though this frustrates NATO a bit, Orban is willing to take this risk because it is not a huge blow to NATO as NATO can send aid through any other neighboring country. The conflicting messages about the allowance of NATO personnel within Hungary are also reflective of Orban’s efforts to constantly balance his relations with both powers. At first, Orban prohibited the movement of NATO military personnel in any part of the country. However, a couple of weeks after President Joe Biden announced that the United States would protect every inch of NATO territory, Orban adjusted his policy to allow NATO personnel into Western Hungary only. Orban once again felt pressured to alter his policy in a way that satisfies his biggest NATO allies but also does not antagonize Russia. 

Not all of Hungary’s response has been disappointing, as Hungary has been very receptive to Ukrainian refugees. Within only three months of the start of the invasion, Hungary accepted about 787,000 refugees from Ukraine, which ranked them among the highest in the EU. On top of that, Hungary has even asked the EU for additional funds to support this humanitarian program. Although this is slightly surprising since Hungary has a history of having an extremely strict immigration policy, it is good to see that Hungary has taken some positive action. However, not to be too cynical, it seems that Orban is only willing to do this because he can please his Western allies without angering Putin. Orban can show the Western powers that he cares about Ukraine because he is taking in refugees, and he can do this without angering Putin because taking in refugees is not a direct action against him. 

These mixed responses clearly demonstrate that Orban is carefully trying to balance Hungary’s relations between the West and Russia, but where does Orban’s loyalty really lie? Given that the media is virtually state-controlled, the Hungarian media’s outlook on the crisis is a fantastic place to look. The media has repeatedly shown immense sympathies towards Russia, as the overarching message of the media is that Ukraine had this coming. They make the argument that Ukraine deserves this for suppressing the Hungarian and Russian minorities in the country. To back this controversial claim up, the media cherry-picked two elderly people sympathetic to the former Soviet Union to interview. One said that the invasion of Ukraine is “just” and that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a “scumbag,” and another said that although she feels bad for Ukrainians, Ukraine had it coming because it provoked a “sleeping lion.” The media is practically pushing the same propaganda that the Russian media is pushing onto its own citizens, a clear sign of allegiance towards Russia. Orban thinks he can play his cards right to navigate this crisis by balancing Hungary’s relations with both sides. However, despite being buried underneath “neutrality,” this crisis has revealed Orban’s true colors: an admiration of authoritarianism and a pro-Russian allegiance. 

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