The meeting between Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin undermines NATO’s unity

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

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The Ukrainian crisis has revealed the existence of different approaches between NATO members over how to deal with Russia. Some European states seek a more conciliatory attitude due to their energy dependence on Russia or traditional cultural relations. However, the NATO members share the same concern regarding Russian aggression towards Ukraine. All? All but one: Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has met Vladimir Putin in Kremlin on February 1. The visit occurred in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis and undermined NATO and EU unity. It has also damaged Hungarian national interests, as the opposition to the government of Budapest claimed.

The official reason for the trip was the need for Hungary for energy security. Orbán, on several occasions, has dissociated his international positions from his EU allies. Even though his country is a NATO and an EU member, since 1997 and 2004 respectively, the Hungarian Prime Minister has had friendly relations with Putin in the middle of the crises that emerged between the EU and Russia. The meeting of February 1 was the 13th between the two men.

What they discussed

Officially, the Hungarian Prime Minister traveled to Moscow in search of “privileged” gas contracts that would allow him to increase gas imports from Russia. As reported by the media, his objective was to expand the 15-year gas contract between his country and the Russian state-run energy giant Gazprom to secure vaster deliveries of gas. In the contract, Gazprom commits to deliver 4.5 billion cubic meters of gas to Hungary per year through pipes bypassing Ukraine. At a joint news conference was declared that the two men agreed to increase gas supplies to Hungary from 4.5 billion to 5.5 billion cubic meters annually.

The Hungarian PM declared that Hungary secured gas prices for the future. However, the meeting occurred when several governments in Europe accused Russia of organizing an energy crisis against EU members, and condemning Russia’s implicit threats to invade Ukraine.

Symbolic pipes near a Gazprom regional office. Credit: FLICKR/SERGEY/CC BY-SA 2.0

Despite his trip being criticized by the other EU members and NATO and described by the Hungarian opposition as a “betrayal of national interests” Orbán promised long-standing cooperation with Moscow.

Nevertheless, the energy security purpose of the travel seems a pretext, when Orbán claimed he was on a “peace mission”.

“I would like to assure you that no EU leader wants war or conflict. We are ready for a rational agreement,” the Hungarian PM told Putin, AFP reported. “We call for political solutions and mutually beneficial agreements,” he added, saying that the EU is “ready for a reasonable agreement.”

Putin thanked the Hungarian PM for his efforts in supporting the Russian-Hungarian relationship and said the discussions should include security matters.

In addition, Orbán told Hungarian public radio on January 28 that he intends to increase cooperation with Russia in the food industry, tourism, space research, and Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V to be manufactured in Hungary.

Orban’s long flirt with Russia

The special relationship of Viktor Orbán with Putin dates back to 2010. Although the two leaders have similar ruling styles, each has his specific agenda. Orbán tries to play on two fields to obtain gains from both sides, based on the geopolitical significance of his country. His most important goal at this moment is to secure his re-election given the general elections next April.

On the other side, Orbán’s ambitious political maneuvers assist Putin’s aims to show the Western world – NATO and the EU – as deeply divided.

As reported by the media, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba described the move as “a purely political, economically unreasonable decision taken in favor of the Kremlin while to the detriment of Ukraine’s national interests and Ukraine-Hungarian ties.”

Kuleba meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. in August 2021. Credit: Public domain

Despite being today the ideal ally of Russia in the West, the Hungarian politician started his political career in 1989 when speaking for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Again, when in opposition, he called the Socialist government support for Russia’s South Stream gas project a “treasonous” one.

Hungary’s economy is also deeply dependent on the EU bloc. More than 80 percent of its total exports go to other EU member states. Only on energy issues, the country critically depends on Moscow. Approximately 57 percent of its natural gas needs and 89 percent of its oil come from Russia.

However, energy matters aren’t the only issue that brings Orbán to the court of Putin.

In January 2018, the EU’s anti-fraud agency (Olaf) investigated more than 35 projects aimed at improving public lighting in Hungary and found “serious irregularities” – all linked to the son-in-law of the Prime Minister. As reported by Euronews, the projects were part-financed by the European Union. Olaf’s claims could prompt Brussels to try and claw back payments on projects of more than €40m.

“OLAF has finalized its investigation into possible irregularities related to 35 lighting projects implemented under the Hungarian Environment and Energy Operational Program, and co-financed by the European Cohesion Funds,” an Olaf spokeswoman told Euronews.

“Olaf’s investigation revealed not only serious irregularities in most of the projects but also a conflict of interest,” he added.

Olaf sent its final report containing financial recommendations to the European Commission Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, and judicial recommendations to the General Prosecutor of Hungary.

The Paks Nuclear Power Plant in Hungary. Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0 Author Barna Rovács (Rovibroni)

When he returned to power in 2010, Orbán has changed his position towards Russia. In 2011, he declared its “Eastern Opening” strategy in search of new markets in Russia, China, Turkey, and other countries. Orbán also became an advocate of the South Stream pipeline.

Nevertheless, Hungary is expanding its Russian-type nuclear plant near the small town of Paks with Russian support. This decision led to a dispute between Budapest and Brussels in 2014 because Budapest awarded, without an international tender, the $14.5 billion (€12.5 billion) project to Russia’s state corporation Rosatom.

When the EU introduced sanctions on Russia as a response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Hungarian PM said that “what we are doing on sanctions to Russia is not a reasonable policy.”

What is the meaning of the meeting

According to the Hungarian opposition, the meeting between Orbán and Putin indirectly encourages the Russian president “to further escalate the current tense situation.”

This visit dissociates Hungary from its allies, especially Poland. Despite Warsaw having created a united bloc with Budapest to affront Brussels critics on the rule of law, media freedom, or immigration policy, Poland firmly supports Ukraine and honors its commitments with NATO. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visited Kyiv on Tuesday, February 1, and has met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visited Kyiv on Tuesday, February 1, and has met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. Credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Kancelaria Premiera

Morawiecki said before leaving for Kyiv that Poland would support Ukraine and provide military and humanitarian assistance.

Independently of any official pretext, Orbán’s visit to Moscow and the five-hour meeting with the strong man of Russia undermines the unity of the western world – NATO and the EU – and harms Hungary’s national interests.



Theodoros Benakis
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Theodoros Benakis - Editor, The America Times

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