Hungary clashes with EU, but what about NATO?
Many people are aware that Hungary and the European Union find themselves in a complex relationship, mainly as they do not see eye to eye on the rule of law. Less known and often misunderstood, however, is Hungary’s stance towards NATO.
What is this about?
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, much has been written about the sources of the conflict and Russia’s aggressive policy towards Ukraine. The war has, however, also brought another sensitive issue to the surface: the relationship between Russia and Hungary.
What about the Russia-Hungary relationship?
Hungary is widely perceived as the most Russia-friendly EU and NATO member and has therefore frequently been criticised by its Western allies during the course of the war.1
What does this mean for Hungary’s relation with NATO?
In contrast to what many suggest, Hungary’s EU-sceptic attitude and clinch with the Union over issues such as the rule of law do not make the country anti-NATO as well. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government not only support, but also want to strengthen the Alliance. At the same time, some tensions are visible between the two, mainly related to a difference in perception of NATO’s supposed identity and Hungary’s wish to be perceived as a country that keeps itself aloof from the Ukraine war.
To fully understand Hungary’s stance towards NATO, its relatively friendly relationship with Russia should be explained first.
In March 1999, Hungary was one of the first three post-Communist countries to join NATO, together with Poland and Czech Republic.2 At the same time, fruitful cooperation between Hungary and Russia remained and even increased, especially in the energy and fuel sector.3 This has caused Hungary to be dependent on Russia for about 65 per cent of its oil and 80 per cent of its gas imports.4 The chances of Hungary banning Russian oil and gas as some EU countries have done or would like to are therefore low.
Orbán sees a valuable partner in Putin on an ideological level in his fight against Western liberalism
Last year, the country signed a new fifteen-year gas supply agreement with Gazprom and this July Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó even visited Moscow to negotiate an increase in gas supplies, a salient detail being that this visit was only one day after the European Union presented its plan to reduce European gas demand by 15 per cent.5 This reliance on Russia is one of the main reasons why Hungary has been cautious of directly criticising the country regarding the war in Ukraine.6
Another reason for Hungary’s relatively soft line on Russia is that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sees a valuable partner in President Vladimir Putin on an ideological level in his fight against Western liberalism.
Finally, Hungary’s friendly relationship with Russia also appears to be linked to a desire to protect Hungarian assets in Russia, particularly those connected to the MOL Group, Hungary’s foremost gas and oil company, and the OTP Bank, the country’s largest commercial bank. Both are not only large companies that are highly important to the country, but also owned by wealthy pro-Fidesz7 Hungarians.6
Hungary’s difficult relationship with Ukraine
Over the past months, Hungary seemed reluctant to help Ukraine like some of its NATO allies have done; it does not supply weapons to Ukraine, nor does it allow other NATO members to transport weapons across its territory to Ukraine.8 However, it is important to note that Hungary has had a strained relationship with Ukraine for years.
In order to tackle Russian influence in Eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian Parliament decided to pass a new education law in 2017. This law limited the rights of ethnic minorities living in Ukraine, including those of approximately 150,000 ethnic Hungarians, to be educated in their native language.9
Consequently, as the advocate par excellence for Hungarian minority rights outside of Hungary, Orbán threatened to block all steps within the EU that would further integrate Ukraine.10 Nevertheless, this did not stop the Ukrainian Parliament from adopting a new law in 2019, which made the use of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of public life mandatory.
For these reasons, Hungary has been blocking political meetings between NATO and Ukraine since 2018 as a sign of discontent. Many experts and opinion leaders have in turn been claiming that this type of decision demonstrates that Hungary is Russia’s ‘Trojan Horse’ within NATO and that the country intends to undermine the unity of NATO in providing support to Ukraine.11
Despite the strained relations with Ukraine, Hungary repeatedly made clear that it stands for the sovereignty and integrity of Ukrainian territory
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also frequently attacked Orbán for taking a relatively soft line with Moscow and not demonstrating full support to Ukraine. In response, Orbán referred to Zelensky in his election victory speech as one of his opponents and has also stated that the president’s demands (regarding sanctions) would force the Hungarians to pay the price of the war.12
Simultaneously, despite the strained relations with Ukraine, Hungary repeatedly made clear that it stands for the sovereignty and integrity of Ukrainian territory and has offered – among other things – a support package worth 37 million euros to Ukraine to improve the humanitarian situation.13 Furthermore, Hungary has received over 750,000 Ukrainians who have fled to Hungary or through Hungary to another country, making it the largest humanitarian aid operation in the country’s history.14 Over 1,600 Ukrainian children are going to Hungarian schools and more than 8000 Ukrainian citizens have received permits for employment.15
When asked why Hungary only provides humanitarian aid and does not supply weapons to Ukraine, Minister Szijjártó answered that Hungary was not the only EU or NATO country that did not deliver weapons.16
Moreover, according to him, the most important duty of the Hungarian government is to make sure that it can guarantee the security of the country and its people. The minister continued by stating that if weapons would be delivered from or through Hungary to Ukraine, the country would risk being involved in the conflict. Hungary wants to avoid this as it would increase the possibility that Russians would “shoot in the direction of the Hungarian-Ukrainian border or of parts of Ukraine that are populated by Hungarians”.17
Hungary’s stance towards NATO
On 6 April, a few days after his election victory, Orbán described Hungary’s position towards NATO with these words: “We are a NATO member country, we will remain a NATO member country, and we want to build a much stronger army than we have today. This will also strengthen NATO. If Hungary becomes stronger, our allies will also benefit.”18
When the war broke out in Ukraine, Hungary condemned Russia’s military aggression
Two weeks earlier, during the Extraordinary NATO Summit in Brussels, Orbán even stated that NATO was stronger than Russia.19 At the same time, he also emphasised during the same summit that Hungary stands on the side of Hungary, which is a recurring theme in Orbán’s rhetoric. Concretely, this stance translates into Hungary trying to balance its actions towards NATO and Russia to preserve both its NATO membership and its ties with Moscow.20
Nevertheless, when the war broke out in Ukraine, Hungary condemned Russia’s military aggression and invasion. Moreover, it backed EU sanctions (just not on energy imports), and even agreed with Finland and Sweden joining NATO and with the adoption of NATO’s new Strategic Concept which refers to Russia as the most significant threat to the Allied security.21
Hungary’s balancing act can also be perceived from its decision in early February to not accept more NATO troops on its territory in response to the Ukraine crisis as there was still no war, only to accept them a month later when the war broke out.22
However, this decision in February should not be interpreted as an act against NATO. As Szijjártó explained in an interview with EuroNews: “We already have NATO troops on the territory of the country which is the Hungarian Army, and the Hungarian Armed Forces are in proper shape to guarantee the security of the country. So we don’t need additional troops on the territory of Hungary.”23
On top of this, Hungary was still cooperating in the field of training with fellow NATO member states. If the Hungarian armed forces would not have been in shape to protect the country, the question about whether to accept more troops would have made sense, said Minister Szijjártó.23
A month later at the Extraordinary NATO Summit, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was however decided to establish four additional multinational battle groups in among other countries Hungary to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank.24
Moreover, during the NATO Summit in Madrid in June 2022, Hungary agreed on Finland and Sweden joining the Alliance and participated in the launch of NATO’s Innovation Fund, aimed at investing in nascent technologies that have the power to transform NATO’s future security.25
One tension concerns a different perception of NATO’s supposed identity
Not only the Hungarian government has demonstrated its support for NATO. In 1997, prior to Hungary’s integration into NATO in 1999, a referendum was held during which 85.3 per cent voted in favour of joining NATO.26 In early February 2022, 25 years later, a survey revealed that 76 per cent would vote in favour of Hungary staying in NATO if a referendum was held on the topic.27
Tensions between Hungary and NATO
Despite Hungary’s overall positive stance towards NATO, there are some tensions between the two.
One tension concerns a different perception of NATO’s supposed identity. For instance, during the NATO Madrid Summit, Hungary was the only country that objected – and thus also blocked – the establishment of a Center for Democratic Resilience within NATO.28 It therefore seems that Hungary, in contrast to most importantly the current US administration, does not wish NATO to play a role in the “battle between autocracy and democracy”.29
Another tension stems from Hungary’s wish to be perceived as aloof from the war, with the emphasis on ‘perceived’. The common thread in the attitude that the Hungarian government conveyed in the past few months was that it really does not want to get involved in the war, with statements such as: “This is not our war, but we will help those coming to us” and “Hungary stands on Hungary’s side.”30
However, Hungary is not as aloof as it maybe wants to be perceived. Hungary is a NATO member state that has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, agreed with NATO’s new Strategic Concept that refers to Russia as the most significant threat to the Alliance’s security, backed multiple EU sanction packages targeting Russia, provided some support to Ukraine, and participates in several NATO activities and initiatives. Moreover, when Russia adopted a list of ‘enemy countries’ to which it will only settle any debts in rubbles and which made approval from a Russian government commission mandatory for any corporate deals, it concerned all EU countries, including Hungary.31
This does not mean that Hungary’s energy dependency on Russia and Orbán’s relatively friendly stance towards the country are no reason for concern. NATO is built on the idea that a secure and peaceful Europe is “based on common values of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”.32 Although it does not have mechanisms to respond or sanction behaviour that is not in line with these principles, it could lead to tensions within NATO when one of its member states does not adhere them. These tensions could undermine the unity within NATO, which is highly undesirable at any time, but especially now with the war in Ukraine.
- 1Polina Tikhonova, ‘A long history of Hungary’s relations with Russia explained’, Insider Paper, 27 April 2022; Giorgio Cafiero, ‘Analysis: Ukraine war has both blindsided and empowered Orban’, Al Jazeera, 27 June 2022; Justin Spike, ‘Hungary’s Orban criticized for ‘neutrality’ in Ukraine war’, ABC News, 26 March 2022; Balazs Tarnok, ‘Why is Hungary ‘blocking’ Ukraine’s NATO accession?’, Washington Times, 25 June 2021.
- 2Maciej Tyburski, ‘The accession of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to NATO’, Warsaw Institute, 29 March 2021.
- 3Polina Tikhonova, ‘A long history of Hungary’s relations with Russia explained’, Insider Paper, 27 April 2022.
- 4 ‘Hungarian FM in Russia to discuss buying more gas’, Euractiv, 21 July 2022.
- 5 ‘Hungary agrees 15-year gas deal with Gazprom – foreign minister’, Reuters, 3 June 2021; ‘Hungary’s top diplomat visits Moscow to negotiate gas supplies despite EU bid to cut deliverables’, Euronews, 22 July 2022.
- 6 a b Amanda Coakley, ‘Putin’s Trojan Horse Inside the European Union’, Foreign Policy, 3 August 2022.
- 7Viktor Orbán’s political party.
- 8 ‘Orban allows deployment of NATO troops in western Hungary’, Al Jazeera, 7 March 2022.
- 9Balazs Tarnok, ‘Why is Hungary ‘blocking’ Ukraine’s NATO accession?’, Washington Times, 25 June 2021; Erika Solomon, ‘In Ukraine, a minority group feels ambivalence about the war’, The New York Times, 16 June 2022.
- 10Hadas Aron & Emily Holland, ‘Is Hungary Ukraine’s biggest problem in the European Union?’, War on the rocks, 29 April 2022; ‘Hungary threatens ‘pain’ for Ukraine over controversial language law’, Radio Free Europe; Radio Liberty, 27 September 2017.
- 11Balazs Tarnok, ‘Why is Hungary ‘blocking’ Ukraine’s NATO accession?’, Washington Times, 25 June 2021.
- 12Victor Jack, ‘Hungary summons Ukraine envoy over Zelenskyy’s ‘insulting’ comments’, Politico, 6 April 2022; Justin Spike, ‘Hungary’s Orban criticized for ‘neutrality’ in Ukraine war’, ABC News, 26 March 2022.
- 13Quest Means Business, ‘EU threatens to cut funds to Hungary over corruption’, YouTube, 27 April 2022, 3:40 to 4:00; ‘Hungary to continue Ukrainian aid programme as long as needed, says minister’, Daily News Hungary, 8 June 2022.
- 14Alexandra Szentkirályi, ‘Kormányszóvivő: Magyarország segít’, Infostart, 7 June 2022; ‘Zoltán Kovács: This is the biggest humanitarian aid operation ever in Hungary’, About Hungary, 25 March 2022.
- 15Alexandra Szentkirályi, ‘Kormányszóvivő: Magyarország segít’, Infostart, 7 June 2022.
- 16Quest Means Business, ‘EU threatens to cut funds to Hungary over corruption’, YouTube, 27 April 2022, 4:20 to 4:50.
- 17Quest Means Business, ‘EU threatens to cut funds to Hungary over corruption’, YouTube, 27 April 2022, 4:50 to 5:35.
- 18Viktor Orbán, ‘Statement by Viktor Orbán at an international press conference’ [speech], Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, 6 April 2022.
- 19 ‘Orbán Viktor: a NATO sokal erősebb, mint Oroszország’, Inforstart, 26 March 2022.
- 20For instance, the Hungarian government remained silent after Russia demanded NATO to return to its 1997 borders this January, which were the borders before Hungary became part of the Alliance. While countries such as Romania and Bulgaria quickly issued press releases of their country’s refusal to do so, the Hungarian government did no such thing. Quite the contrary. As noted by Hungarian journalist Gergely Tóth: “The Hungarian government, which so aggressively defends its sovereignty against the EU, has not spoken on the matter. Viktor Orbán will meet Putin in Moscow next week.” Gergely Tóth, ‘Az orosz békeajánlat: vissza 1997-be, lényegében megszűnne Magyarország NATO-tagsága’, Telex, 26 January 2022. Prior to this visit Minister Szijjártó even stressed the importance of having a good relationship with Russia, highlighting among other things the large number of vaccines and amount of gas that the country had provided to Hungary. Szijjártó: Magyar érdek, hogy jóban legyünk az oroszokkal’, Hirado.hu, 25 January 2022.
- 21Amanda Coakley, ‘Putin’s Trojan Horse Inside the European Union’, Foreign Policy, 3 August 2022; Gyula Csak, ‘Orban’s victory speech gives clues to his future strategy’, Reporting Democracy, 4 April 2022; ‘Strategic Concepts’, NATO, 18 July 2022; ‘When will Sweden and Finland join NATO? Tracking the ratification process across the Alliance’, Atlantic Council, 8 August 2022.
- 22 ‘Ukraine crisis: Hungary won’t accept more NATO troops on its soil, says foreign minister Szijjártó’, EuroNews, 10 February 2022; ‘Statement by NATO Heads of State and Government’, NATO, 24 March 2022.
- 23 a b Júlia Tar, ‘FM Szijjártó: No extra NATO troops needed in Hungary’, Euronews, 10 February 2022.
- 24 ‘Statement by NATO Heads of State and Government’, NATO, 24 March 2022.
- 25 ‘Madridi Csúcstalálkozó Június 28-30’, Permanent Delegation of Hungary to NATO; ‘NATO launches Innovation Fund’, NATO, 30 June 2022.
- 26 ‘National result of the referendum held on 16th November, 1997’, The National Election Committee, 20 November 1997.
- 27Flora Medve, ‘Hungarians’ opinion on leaving NATO 2022’, Statista, 2 March 2022.
- 28Andrew Desiderio, Alexander Ward & Quint Forgey, ‘Hungary is being another NATO Budapest’, Politico, 28 June 2022.
- 29Ash Jain, ‘Biden has laid out a new vision for democracies to succeed. Here’s how to implement it’, Atlantic Council, 1 April 2022.
- 30Victor Jack, ‘Hungary summons Ukraine envoy over Zelenskyy’s ‘insulting’ comments’, Politico, 6 April, 2022; Alexandra Szentkirályi, ‘Kormányszóvivő: Magyarország segít’, Infostart, 7 June 2022; ‘Hungary stands on Hungary’s side’, Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, 26 March 2022.
- 31Georgi Gotev, ‘Russia adopts list of ‘enemy’ countries to which it will pay its debts in rubles’, Euractiv, 8 March 2022.
- 32 ‘NATO’s purpose’, NATO, 4 July 2022.