by William Nattrass
Tuesday, 29
November 2022
Analysis
07:00

Is Viktor Orbán changing his tune on Ukraine?

The Hungarian leader has issued a number of strong statements against Russia
by William Nattrass
Credit: Getty.

Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has walked a tightrope. He has backed EU sanctions on Russia despite claiming that they are a “step towards war”, and only after fighting for carve-outs for Hungary. His expressions of support for Ukraine have been half-hearted, emphasising the importance of peace rather than outright defeat for Vladimir Putin.  

Yet recent days have seen the first signs of a potential change in this awkward balancing act. Strong statements opposing Russia indicate that, ever the pragmatic strategist, Orbán believes the winds are now blowing in favour of Ukrainian victory. 


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Speaking at an international conference on Saturday, he described the Ukraine war as “clear aggression” from Russia, saying a sovereign Ukraine is needed “to stop Russia posing a threat to the security of Europe.” Such statements are commonplace among most Western leaders but highly surprising coming out of Orbán’s mouth.  

The weekend also saw Hungarian President Katalin Novák travel to Kyiv to meet Volodymyr Zelensky. Novak is a close ally of Orbán, having served as his minister for family affairs before becoming president earlier this year. In Kyiv, she stated that “Vladimir Putin’s responsibility for this war is crystal clear.” 

Novák’s trip to meet Zelensky, alongside the staunchly pro-Ukraine prime ministers of Poland and Lithuania, marked a change from Hungary’s recent emphasis on diplomatic relations with Russia. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó has been a frequent flyer to Russia since the war began, negotiating gas purchases as well as cooperation for a major nuclear power project in Hungary.  

It’s possible that Hungary’s new charm offensive towards Ukraine is just another part of Orbán’s calculated ambivalence over the war. Many are also claiming that his shifting stance is linked to a looming decision on EU funds being withheld from Hungary; speculation is rife that Brussels will not approve part of Hungary’s funding despite concessions from Budapest, so Orbán may be keen to show the rest of the EU that he is on their side after all. 

Yet while there may be a degree of truth in such arguments, the shift could also indicate something much more significant. All along, Orbán’s ambivalence on the war has been pragmatic, based on the assumption that it is impossible for Ukraine to actually defeat Russia on the battlefield. That might be changing. 

In a speech this summer, he claimed Ukraine “will never win a war against Russia” because “the Russian army has asymmetric dominance.” A similar attitude lurked behind his opposition to energy sanctions: Orbán dismissed the notion that the West could win an economic war with Russia, likening EU penalties on Russia to a “dwarf sanctioning a giant.” 

Such fatalistic predictions about Russian victory don’t look too clever in light of Ukraine’s liberation of Kherson, with the Russian army on the back foot as winter approaches. Hungarian statements condemning Putin in recent days may be just another part of Orbán’s balancing act. But they could also be a sign that he now fears backing a losing horse in the war in Ukraine.

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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 months ago

“When the facts change l change my opinion. What do you do?” Is a quote often attributed to John Maynard Keynes. It seems Victor Orban and the impeccably liberal Keynes share a similar approach to things. Who would have thought it? Certainly not the commentariat that regularly describes him as “far right”.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 months ago

Fascinating as to how the media portrays Ukraine as some downtrodden cradle of freedom and democracy? Just ask anyone who actually has experience of the place?

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 months ago

Ukrainians have chosen the kind of freedom and democracy enjoyed in Europe in preference to the corruption and authoritarianism of Russia, let alone extinction of Ukraine and absorption as part of Russia, the objective unambiguously stated by Putin. If you dispute this, then I doubt the motives for your post.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 months ago

Zelensky’s election as President was deemed to be fair by all international observers befire the war started, so how is the country not democratic? Whilst it may have problems with nepotism and financial corruption which are common in many poorer countries, the Ukrainians were certainly more free than their Russian counterparts

martin logan
martin logan
2 months ago

Having been there, I really don’t see any sense in your statement.
It was probably somewhat less corrupt than Russia in 2014. Some people did try to cheat you, but most didn’t. Just like Moscow. There certainly was organized crime. How could there not be when Russian organized crime, particularly in Donbas, tries to gain access to Europe through Ukraine?
But they have made real efforts to fight corruption. Putin’s battlefield failures ae the direct result of a corrupt Russian nation’s inability to defeat a nation with a strong civil society.
And now with Russia overtly promising to wipe out Ukrainje and all Ukrainians, they have the best incentive in the world to pull together.
Places like Bucha, Kherson, Kyiv, etc. concentrate their minds–and their honesty–wonderfully.

Andrew Watson
Andrew Watson
2 months ago

The greater the distance it sets between itself and Russia the freer and more democratic it becomes – that is what it is fighting for. It is certainly downtrodden by its association with Russia – as all eastern European countries have been.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
2 months ago

I am no expert, but I thought that Kherson had been strategically vacated, rather than being actively “liberated” (or at least this the impression I was given reading other articles on the matter in here)

R Wright
R Wright
2 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

A scorched earth retreat from annexed territory is not a victory. It is a defeat.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Ukrainian artillery inflicted significant damage on the bridges, significantly restricting the amount and weight of materiel that the Russians could supply to Kherson. The Ukrainians then attacked Kherson, over open ground, against dug-in positions, without the 3:1 advantage that attckers want. The Russians were caused to expend munitions at a greater rate than they could be supplied with. The Russians were left with a choice: retreat, or stand, fight and die. Their retreat was a strategic defeat.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

You mean in the same way as Germany strategically vacated Russia in 1945?

Tony Price
Tony Price
2 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

I think that you will find that Germany left the Soviet Union in 1944!

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 months ago

Putin has to win to secure his position. A stalemate, defeat, or a general Russian mobilisation will be politically unacceptable. At the moment things look bad for Putin.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 months ago

As a Hungarian, I’m sure Oban knows only too well what is involved in domination by a Russia governed in the way it is. No doubt his policy of avoiding dispute with Russia is because he wishes to avoid the trouble which it can cause him because of its proximity and monopoly on the supply of energy, I’ve no idea if he is changing policy or why. It’s a narrow path to tread.

Andrew Watson
Andrew Watson
2 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

How does being a Hungarian differ from being an Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Pole, Romanian or Bulgarian vis-a-vis Russia? Yet all of those countries have had the courage and integrity to denounce Russian imperialist aggression from the start. Why is Orban obliged to be craven and fearful of Russia when no one else is? A false and dishonourable man who brings shame on his country.

martin logan
martin logan
2 months ago

I suspect Putin will continue his war–and Orban’s new stance reflects the likely outcome.
Russia’s high-tech phase is over. Now it’s just sending ill-armed, ill-equipped cannon fodder forward, again and again.
This is actually what Stalin did in 1941. Most of the Russian army was destroyed. Nearly all of its 20,000 tanks were lost. But it prevented the Germans from reaching Moscow. Then, lend-lease and reserves from the east enabled the later counterattacks and victory.
Orban sees that, yes, Moscow won’t fall. But he now doubts that Putin can hold on to the few crumbs of Ukrainian territory that Russia still occupies.

Philip MINNS
Philip MINNS
2 months ago

Thanks for an interesting article. Orban is no fool and he can see which way the wind is blowing. He seems at last to realise, like many others, that Russia will always be there but that Putin has to go. He also realises that it won’t look good after the war, as Ukraine moves to root out endemic corruption and prepare for EU membership, if he still appears to be the most egregious example of endemic corruption within the EU, to the point of consistently being refused eagerly awaited EU funds.