February 1, 2022 - 2:00pm

Today’s meeting in Moscow between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin hasn’t gone down well in Hungary — or anywhere else in the EU. The Fidesz leader has been accused of sowing divisions by the Hungarian opposition, who described his visit to the Kremlin as “simply treasonous.” But perhaps critics overlook the possibility that Europe’s attempts to cut off the Kremlin have played a major part in provoking the current crisis.

Hungary is an outlier in a region which has lurched westward in economic and foreign policy over the past year. In the Czech Republic, the influence of Russophile President Miloš Zeman has been curtailed since the election of a pro-western coalition government in October. But even before this shift, relations with Moscow were far from rosy: revelations about covert Russian involvement in an explosion in an arms depot in the Moravian village of Vrbětice in 2014 led to a rupture in diplomatic ties and the exclusion of Russia from major Czech economic projects, including future nuclear developments. 

The Baltic states and Poland have also doubled down on their pro-western, anti-Russia tendencies. Lithuania has pursued a particularly concentrated pro-western foreign policy under its government elected in October 2020, calling for the EU to decouple its economy from Russia by diversifying supply chains. And the Kremlin’s reduced economic standing in eastern Europe was best summed up by the monumental failure of its much-vaunted Sputnik V Covid vaccine: when Slovakia controversially purchased the Russian jab in March 2021, other eastern EU members backed away, leaving Hungary the vaccine’s sole EU customer. 

Russia’s exclusion from major economic projects throughout eastern Europe may well trouble Putin. Analysts expect Russia’s economy to face huge structural problems once demand for fossil fuels starts to dry up in the western world over the coming decades. Moves by eastern Europe — a region which the Kremlin once saw as its backyard — to cut Russia off do not bode well for any future domestic economic transformation. 

Hungary, on the other hand, has, if anything, looked to strengthen its economic relations with the Kremlin, through Russian involvement in Hungary’s major Paks II nuclear development and close collaboration on the production and distribution of Sputnik V Covid vaccines. Still, it is a major outlier in eastern Europe, and that seems unlikely to change.

This long-term vulnerability puts Putin’s demand for an eastern “sphere of influence” in a new perspective. The Kremlin knows that unless the West’s sway over eastern Europe is scaled back, its own room for economic manoeuvre will become extremely limited. This wouldn’t be the first time Ukraine has paid the price for Russian economic insecurity: the annexation of Crimea in 2014 came in response to the toppling of Ukraine’s government by pro-Western forces over its refusal to ratify a free trade agreement with the EU.  

If Hungary’s effort to balance eastern and western economic interests had been replicated by other EU member states, Putin may not have felt compelled to use the threat of force to re-establish a waning regional influence. Perhaps then, Orban’s approach isn’t as “treasonous” as it seems.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz