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Apart from the Kremlin, everyone is interested in improving the Hungarian-Ukrainian relations that have deteriorated since 2017. Ukraine is open to a rapprochement as it needs Hungary’s support in the Western alliance system, while the Orbán government needs to reduce its international isolation. Thus, in the next six months, we will see what is more important for Orbán: Hungary’s relationship with and position in the West or its cordial relationship with the Kremlin.

By Rudolf Berkes, Political Capital

Ukraine is in a more difficult political and military situation than at the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion. On the front, the strategic situation is more or less unchanged for the time being, but based on the current trends, it is expected to deteriorate for Ukraine, as Russia still occupies one-fifth of Ukraine's territory, and a low-intensity conflict favors Moscow in the medium term. Moreover, insufficient Western arms supplies are making the difficulties of the Ukrainian army increasingly acute in the short term. The political unity behind Western assistance is being disrupted in Europe mainly by Viktor Orban's veto policy and in the United States by the Trumpist Republicans, who are in a fever of presidential election, riding on the back of growing Ukraine fatigue. Behind Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea have joined forces. They are the main supporters of the Russian military, supporting the war economy and reducing the impact of Western sanctions. However, maintaining the societal consensus behind Western assistance to Ukraine and rapidly expanding US and European arms supplies and weapons production capacity remain a core security interest for both Europe and America. 

The West’s Orbán-problem

In this context, the Hungarian government presents an obstacle to Western powers and Ukraine. Over the last decade, the government has fostered its relations with Moscow, convincing its electorate and itself that Russia is a more trusted and valuable partner for Hungary than the US. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, during an election campaign in Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party opted for a message of peace and security. Arguing for a ceasefire in Ukraine was not an untenable position in the spring of 2022, given the Hungarian society’s need for a sense of security and stability while the whole European security architecture was falling apart. However, the government kept its pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukraine rhetoric after the May 2022 general elections, defying expectations that it would hit a more friendly tone towards Ukraine and the West once the heat of the electoral campaign subsides.

Alongside its allies, the Hungarian government also sees an emboldened, alienated, and even more aggressive Russia remains the most significant and direct security threat to Europe and Hungary. Thus, a broken and defeated Ukraine would run counter to the most basic principles of Hungarian security policy and the country’s interest in upholding the rules-based international order. But, while 65% of Hungarians agree that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a threat to the security of the EU, 27%, mostly voters of Fidesz and the far-right Mi Hazánk party, continue to think of Russia as a strategic partner.

The Orbán government is supporting, albeit reluctantly, a number of EU decisions related to the Russia-Ukraine war, including funding arms shipments, financial and humanitarian aid, and sanctions packages against Russia. At the same time, the Orbán regime still argues that Ukraine cannot win the war, sanctions against Russia are failing, and Ukraine should make peace with Russia even if it means losing territories.   In consequence, the previously moderately high support for Ukraine is slowly evaporating among Hungarians.

The need for change

Apart from the last few weeks, the Hungarian foreign policy strategy on the Russian-Ukrainian war has changed little. Expectations are growing again for a shift in policy as Hungary’s international isolation worsened among its Western allies, governing itself into a corner with its pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukrainian communication, its veto threats, and Orbán’s last October meeting with Putin in Beijing. It even alienated Hungary's closest traditional ally, Poland, as neither the then-ruling Law and Justice party nor the then-opposition block led by Donald Tusk could align itself with a government campaigning against supporting Ukraine and punishing Russia. Now, with a Tusk government in place in Warsaw, the chances of a renewed Hungarian-Polish alliance seem remote. 

Without the allies in governments, the Orbán regime tried to build influence among and establish cooperation with populist radical right and far right forces in Europe by supporting them, convincing them to accept Fidesz's leading role, and facilitating their collaboration, preferably forming a broad alliance. The regime has established cooperation with like-minded parties and leaders in almost every EU member state. Hoping that by fermenting Ukraine fatigue in the West, more and more anti-establishment parties would rise to power, bringing about a ‘regime change’ in Europe.

Russia’s invasion, however, also blew apart the emerging populist radical and far-right coalition in Europe, a pet project of both the Kremlin and Fidesz. Suddenly, the détente between the anti-Kremlin populist radical right parties of the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) group and the pro-Kremlin far-right parties of the Identity and Democracy (ID) group disappeared. After the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, cozy relations towards the Kremlin, relativizing the Russian aggression, and opposing sanctions became unacceptable positions for the Polish and later the Italian governing party, driving a wedge between them and ID group members such as Le Pen’s National Rally, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), and Matteo Salvini’s League in Italy, and the non-attached Fidesz. Now, after realizing its failure to repair relations between the two political groups, Fidesz signaled its intention to join the ECR. However, reconciling the differences between anti-Kremlin ECR members and Fidesz requires concessions from the latter regarding its pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukraine stance.

Aligning interests

Apart from the Kremlin, now everyone is interested in resolving the Hungarian-Ukrainian relations that have deteriorated since 2017. Ukraine needs Hungary's support in the Western alliance system, or at least the Hungarian government not blocking important EU and allied decisions on supporting Ukraine. The Orbán government needs to improve its relations with Ukraine in order to reduce its international isolation and strengthen its influence in Europe by joining the ECR. The recent silent shift in approach, accompanied by strong smoke screening (e.g., abandoning the veto of EU accession negotiations and the blocking of the financial aid package), is a precondition for Fidesz to join the ECR family.

The Ukrainian-Hungarian Foreign Ministers' meeting at the end of January can be a sign of a cautious rapprochement. The high-level diplomatic talks were preceded by important gestures from both sides. Ukraine made concessions on the legal environment affecting minorities, while Hungary agreed to begin Ukraine's EU accession process. The next step would be an Orbán-Zelensky summit, but this remains uncertain.

The question is whether a détente towards Ukraine would mark a lasting change of direction in Hungarian foreign policy or whether it would only be a temporary swing in the balancing act between Russian and Western pressure. The Orbán regime's foreign policy, including its policy towards Ukraine, serves primarily domestic political purposes. For the government, the priority is not to represent Hungary’s national interests by strengthening its own alliance system, but to ensure a favorable international environment that allows the Orbán regime to maintain domestic political stability. Whether it is adjusting its anti-Ukrainian policy, supporting populist radical politicians in Europe and the US, or the priorities of the Hungarian EU presidency, the government has one goal in mind: the long-term sustainability of Viktor Orbán's regime. In the next six months, we will see what is more important for Orbán: Hungary’s relationship with and its position in the West or its cordial relationship with the Kremlin. In the long run, Fidesz's membership in the ECR, if it happens, could be a constraint on the government's pro-Kremlin policy, although it is likely that they will try to hide this by all means and continue the previous peacock dance, even if mainly for show.

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