by William Nattrass
Tuesday, 1
February 2022
Explainer
14:00

Does Viktor Orbán hold the key to Russia?

The Hungarian PM is charting a different path than other European nations
by William Nattrass
The bad boys. Credit: Getty

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.

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Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
6 months ago

It is unlikely that isolating, lecturing and threatening any UnHerd reader would produce positive results. Why would Putin be any different?

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
6 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Is the average UnHerd reader out in the world poisoning the neighbours on one side, while threatening to kick down the fence of the others, and set their house on fire, with the children inside?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Following your analogy, he might gain one unwilling Unherd reader but he’d make enemies of the rest, who’ll ally themselves to oppose him.
I don’t understand why Putin has been given any credit for intelligence on this. He’s painted himself into a corner and if he does invade the world will punish him forever, like the Serbs have been, once we see Kyiv being bombed like Sarajevo.
If he was going to push Ukraine around he should have waited until his new pipeline was opened this year, and then forced NATO and Ukraine to the negotiating table, without moving a single soldier.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
6 months ago

Orban is trying to dance at the European, Russian and Chinese weddings all at once. History will show whether Hungary ends up with all the cake, or none.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
6 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

It won’t be the first time a minor power plays both sides.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

He’s top of the pops in Europe in the Covid deaths front.

David Yetter
David Yetter
6 months ago

The West continued to treat Russia as the enemy when the Soviet Union collapsed and none of its successor states continued the project of exporting an inhumane and unworkable social and economic system by force of arms — opposition to which project was the real reason for NATO’s existence, not opposition to Russia qua Russia.
The West’s failure to genuinely befriend post-Soviet Russia is a diplomatic blunder of similar type to the maltreatment of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. Only fools are surprised then those they treat as enemies become their enemies.
Of course it’s not just the West that wants to continue identifying Soviet with Russian. The Ukrainians blame Russia for the Holodomor, even though Stalin was a Georgian and the forced collectivization of agriculture took a murderous toll on the Russian peasantry as well. The Latvians hate Russia for Soviet rule, even though Stalin was a Georgian, Khrushchev was a Ukrainian and Lenin used Latvian riflemen as his shock troops during the Russian Civil War. And Putin wants to claim anything he can argue was good about the Soviet era for Russia….

Last edited 6 months ago by David Yetter
Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
6 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

The Ukrainians blame Russia for the Holodomor, even though Stalin was a Georgian
It wasn’t an army of Georgians which Stalin used.
Noel

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
6 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

In 1991, the US Government and others had a choice: support the development of a democratic, mixed economy Russia or plunder the country. They chose to plunder the country, hoping that it would be too impoverished to ever rise out of the ruins.
Over the last 7 centuries Russia has been one of the most successful of imperial nations. The Russian empire has existed under Tsars, under Communism and under Putin. Russia’s neighbours are quite correct to view Putin’s manoeuvres as an attempt to return the empire to his historical limits.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
6 months ago

You are either ignorant, or trying to rewrite history for your own reasons; it was Russians who plundered Russia.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
6 months ago
Reply to  David Yetter

Rubbish, The West started to run down its armed forces, although the US bumped theirs up following 9/11.
But once $ started to roll in from oil and gas, Putin chose to spend it on armaments rather than improve the quality of life of the people, and is now tempted to put them to use to distract the latter from their situation.

john zac
john zac
6 months ago

We’re still stuck on coal and you’re ushering in the end of fossil fuels, even though they have the largest LNG reserves?

Martin Brumby
Martin Brumby
6 months ago
Reply to  john zac

“We’re still stuck on coal”?
I don’t think so! Have you been asleep for 10 years?
I fervently wish we were. And even Hilary Clinton admitted that GasProm & Vlad the Bad were funnelling cash into the “Frack Off Protestors”.
Proof that Putin is far more intelligent than all Western leaders screwed together, is the fact that he still has an energy industry fit for purpose.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
6 months ago

The Baltic states and Poland have also doubled down on their .. anti-Russia tendencies.
Gee, I wonder why?
I am reminded of the old joke about the Polish soldier with only one bullet, and a Russian and a German coming at him.
Noel

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
6 months ago
Reply to  Noel Chiappa

The German soldier would be carrying a broomstick so it wouldn’t take long to decide to shoot the Russian.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago

Sure, if we gave Russia what it wanted – presumably returning Eastern Europe to Russian control as client states – Putin would not need to use force to obtain it. But who, especially in Eastern Europe, would accept that? A better question would be what kind of better outcome we could obtain by a different strategy.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

We handed over the Baltic states, much of Poland and Hungary to be incorporated into the USSR. Central and Eastern Europe were invaded by Soviet troops, who remained in situ till the new Communist system was in place, gulags, massacres, and all. Everything that could be looted was looted. I think client states is an odd description of this situation.The idea that Russia will walk into Europe again as dar as Vienna is so absurd as hardly to be worth discussing. Hint. Let’s compare Turkey and the Ottoman Empire with Russia and the USSR. Putin is closer to Ataturk than to Lenin .

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Well, I do not think Russia is going to restart the Warsaw pact or collectivise agriculture. I do think they would like their near abroad to be under Russian dominance, with military and foreign policy subject to Russian veto, with economies integrated in Russias, and with governments that can guarantee that dangerous democratic ideas are suppressed, lest they contaminate Russian politics. If I was a Pole or a Latvian I would not find that state of affairs particularly attractive. What kind of system do you envisage?

Last edited 6 months ago by Rasmus Fogh
Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
6 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Who handed it over, and when, and when were they incorporated into the USSR? In 1945, a colossal Russian force occupied eastern Europe, and didn’t let go. Although the US and new UK government were naive in 1945, they didn’t have much choice.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Well Hitler hoped we might ally with Germany towards the end, but no, as he was far worse than the Russians and we weren’t that bothered about losing Eastern Europe.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
6 months ago

Putin may not have felt compelled to use the threat of force to re-establish a waning regional influence.
Yes of course, the Russians have no choice but to use force, or the threat of force, to be influential. Never mind using diplomacy or economic enticements — military force is the only way!

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
6 months ago

4th November 1956. He’s no Imre Nagy. Make of that what you will.

Snake Oil Cat
Snake Oil Cat
6 months ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

He is Matyas Rakosi. And a nyuszika.