Hungarian Conservative

Let Us Be Clear: We Do Not Serve Russian Interests!

Viktor Orbán and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on 2 July 2024
Viktor Orbán (L) and Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on 2 July 2024
Zoltán Fischer/Press Office of the Prime Minister/MTI
‘If the Hungarian government’s foreign policy in recent months had truly been to serve Russian interests, then, for example, the NATO secretary general would not have left Budapest with a free hand from Hungary to negotiate and conduct NATO training and support for Ukraine, as well as to undertake a long-term financial commitment required for military support, even if Hungary will not itself participate in these NATO efforts.’

In recent years, many people around the world have come to the conclusion that Viktor Orbán and his government are a party of national sovereignty in words only, and in practice serve Russian interests. Those of this opinion may have been somewhat surprised when, on the morning of 2 July, the Hungarian prime minister unexpectedly appeared in Kyiv, where he was given a friendly welcome. But this was not the fruit of just one day’s work. Nor did it begin on the first day of Hungary’s presidency of the EU, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy publicly wished Viktor Orbán as much success as possible in realizing ‘our shared European values’ (Zelenskyy’s words!).

We Have Given Important Assistance to Ukraine

If the Hungarian government’s foreign policy in recent months had truly been to serve Russian interests, then, for example, the NATO secretary general would not have left Budapest with a free hand from Hungary to negotiate and conduct NATO training and support for Ukraine, as well as to undertake a long-term financial commitment required for military support, even if Hungary will not itself participate in these NATO efforts.

Despite the ongoing, historic expansion of Hungary’s military capabilities and the achievements of this process to date, it would be an overestimation of our country’s military capabilities to think that our refusal to partake in these efforts brings much relief to Moscow. On the Russian side, this was hardly considered a meaningful gesture. We are staying away because, although NATO’s planned involvement does not extend to actual engagement in combat, the Russian aggressor had already declared in advance that anyone participating in these efforts would be considered a legitimate battlefield target. Participation therefore involves considerable risk, despite its non-battlefield nature. The precise level of risk was determined by the Hungarian government based on the information at its disposal, and the level of responsibility that could be assumed in the current security situation on behalf of the country and the nation. It is the government’s right and duty to bear this in mind at all times.

At the same time, of course, the Russian threat was not a haphazard remark. It shows that, in their judgment, NATO support will on the whole represent a substantial boon for Ukraine. In other words, since war is a zero-sum game, it may constitute a substantial impediment to Russia’s attainment of the goals it had in invading Ukraine. They are not wrong about that. As such, our absence from the NATO operation does not meaningfully aid Moscow, whereas by approving it we provided very serious help to Kyiv.

We Have Acted in Accordance with Hungarian Interests

A few days later, Hungary’s foreign minister signed the final draft of the Swiss ‘Peace Conference’ resolution, which, among other things, states that peace in Ukraine can only be envisioned through the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In principle, nothing happened, since Hungary has already declared countless times that it supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Furthermore, the event in Switzerland was not a genuine peace conference, since Russia did not participate in it—not least because it was not invited. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that the representatives of the hundred or so participating countries gathered merely for a relaxing break. The essential purpose of the meeting in Switzerland was for the countries that recognize Ukraine’s right to self-defence to agree and establish a joint position before a future actual peace conference: they should not allow themselves to be played against one another. This is why the closing statement of the Swiss conference is a problem for Russia, however much it tries to downplay the event. As a consequence of its aggression against Ukraine, it would be in Russia’s interest to find the weak points of the Western powers, then divide and exploit them against each other, particularly to the detriment of Ukraine.

As such, had Hungary’s foreign policy been in the service of Russian interests, Hungary would either not have participated in the deliberations, or, if it had, would not have signed up to the final declaration. Had it so refused, however, not only would it have had to come up with its own argument, it would also have been left out of the group of countries that unambiguously support the enforcement of international law with regard to the war in Ukraine. Failure to do so would have nullified our ability to assert international and especially Western interests during the Hungarian presidency of the EU. Thus, our foreign policy was decided on the basis of Hungarian interests, not those of Russia.

Why Must This Be Emphasized? Is It Not Self-Evident?

Even if, as some of these events have shown, it is a mistake to think that Hungarian foreign policy has wittingly or unwittingly been at the service of Russian interests, the reality is that many people still believe this of us. It is not merely that such insinuations have been spread about us in bad faith (though there has been plenty of that)—many sincerely and firmly believe this about us. What is more, they can list a number of facts, taken out of context, in support of this view. For instance, the long-running refusal to ratify the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO; the visits of leading government figures to Russia, Belarus, and Iran; Hungary’s refusal to halt all imports from Russian energy carriers; or the consistent stance in support of the ethnic Hungarians living in Transcarpathian Ukraine—which, since they have never experienced anything like the consequences of the 1920 Trianon Treaty is incomprehensible, and which they therefore imagine is only a pretext to stymie Ukraine’s war of self-defence, etc.

Today, this political consensus is one of the key components of Hungary’s foreign-policy stance, and if we want to pursue a successful foreign policy, we have to reckon with it—and indeed deal with it. When, in the first half of this year, we repeatedly said that ‘our peace policy has achieved its goals’ (by which, of course, for the time being we only mean that our soldiers have not been and will not be taken to Ukraine to fight, but it should be added that our more far-reaching goal is for our largest neighbour to live in peace, for at present its future is shrouded in uncertainty), we also had to take into account that what we achieved has not come for free. We are considered pawns of the Russians and therefore dubious, perhaps even hostile, not only in many parts of the United States, but also in Poland, the Baltics, Scandinavia, and—perhaps most sensitively from the point of view of the current Hungarian foreign policy rationale—in our largest neighbour, Ukraine, and there most of all.

Mistakes Have Consequences

That such misapprehensions about us are so widely held hurts not only our pride—though this is undoubtedly an element—but also our fundamental interests. We see this, for example, in the hysteria and interference of the Spanish government against the planned Hungarian strategic investment in Talgo, a high-tech transportation company: our key economic interests may be put at risk due to misconceptions about us. Politically, elements such as the refusal to allow Fidesz to join the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) European Parliamentary faction because it was thought to be working for the Russians are indicative. What is more, Fidesz was ultimately forced to abandon its aspirations to join the ECR because the faction admitted, instead of Fidesz, a chauvinist, anti-minority, and also irredentist (because it aspires to end the independence of Moldova) Romanian party, the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), with which Fidesz, committed as it is to both minority protection and the inviolability of borders, obviously cannot be in the same party. At the same time, it shows the far-reaching consequences of the mistakes surrounding the foreign policy and European policy of Fidesz.

Given the behaviour of the ECR, we on the Hungarian side were forced to embark on a path slightly more tortuous than the original idea of ​​achieving European conservative unity within the ambit of the ECR, though one that nonetheless promises success. Together with our Austrian and Czech allies, we have promulgated a manifesto for a new grouping, Patriots for Europe, which has since been joined by several European conservative parties. This new initiative should play a leading role in creating European conservative unity. As such, when it comes to the future of Europe as a whole, it is of vital importance that this new, emerging grouping avoids being successfully branded as pro-Russian.

From this perspective, it is a real problem that many family-friendly, sovereigntist conservatives who oppose migration and LGBTQ propaganda and are labelled as extreme right by the international left think our peace policy is a pro-Russian effort. Among them are not only parties that are small and therefore easily, but mistakenly, labelled insignificant, but also—as we saw in the case of the leading force of the ECR, the Brothers of Italy—extremely large and influential political forces. At the same time, some political analysts were a little too quick to assume that right-wing gains in the European Parliament elections meant that the ‘peace camp’ had won, and that consequently arms shipments would quickly be replaced by an early ceasefire and negotiations.

Unity Can Be Built on Real Common Denominators

It is crucial to clearly perceive that the common denominator of the European right is not the rejection of arms shipments to Ukraine, but a joint defence against the concept of a Brussels superstate rising above individual EU member states, and sociopolitical diktats based on Woke ideology. Regarding the path to peace, European conservatives tend to hold one of two basic convictions, only one of which is in tune with the Hungarian view. The alternative position is that Ukraine should be given sufficient weaponry that its military capabilities deter Russia and force it to negotiate. However, it is important to realize that the difference between the two approaches is tactical rather than strategic. In terms of the overall strategic goal—the restoration of peace and the enforcement of international law (or in other words, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine)—there is no disagreement. As such, they should see one another as allies or perhaps debating partners, but by no means as enemies.

It is only in this broader strategic sense of the overall goal that we can consider ‘pro-peace’ as a common goal of the right. Tactical issues must be discussed calmly and rationally, as happened in Hungarian–Ukrainian discussions on 2 July in Kyiv, when the Hungarian prime minister proposed to his Ukrainian counterpart that he should consider the feasibility of a ceasefire of fixed duration.

However, it would be a mistake to think that the Hungarian prime minister’s visit to Kyiv means that our objective has been attained. The stereotypes that have been formed about us in the public opinion of many foreign countries—and what is worse, in decision-making circles—are so deep-rooted that they will only be altered through very hard and consistent work. If we wish to play a successful integrative role in the European conservative camp, we must consistently pursue a policy approach that, in both deed and presentation, makes clear the reality of our independence from Russia. This is now also in the fundamental interests of a promising new European Parliamentary faction.

NATO Is Not the Cause of the War

Care must be taken not to be misled by statements such as those by right-wing British politician Nigel Farage, who recently said that NATO and the EU provoked the war in Ukraine. Those who relativize the responsibility of the Russian side for this war, if they organize themselves into a camp at all, have no chance of becoming a determining factor in the West. We Hungarians, have to be much clearer, firmer, and more audible in communicating the official Hungarian position, which has been reiterated for two and a half years, and states that the aggressor bears sole responsibility for the bloodshed in Ukraine.

Of course, one can and should think about how wisely and effectively NATO and the EU handled the problem of the Russian threat, and how they could handle it more wisely in future. Donald Trump, for example, is doing a good job of helping Americans think about this in their own terms. This kind of critical approach is indispensable for establishing a functioning, stable world order after the war in Ukraine. However, it is indisputable that this war was not started by NATO or the EU, not by the West or the United States, but by Russian aggression. Let the Hungarian position be clear: while, based on our values, we encourage all parties in this war to seek peace because peace is the most fundamental principle of international law, we expect an immediate cessation of hostilities primarily from the aggressor, i.e. Russia. This is the shortest path to a ceasefire and peace.

Reclaiming Our Reputation

Hungary must regain esteem across the West by continuing to stand up for our national interests. However, the question of how and for what we stand up is of vital importance. We must act on behalf of our national interests in such a way that the style and perception of our advocacy hinders as little as possible the re-establishment of our reputation. This is particularly important when it comes to our reputation in Central Europe because we can only protect our fundamental interests in cooperation with the nations and peoples we share this region with.

Translated by Thomas Sneddon

‘If the Hungarian government’s foreign policy in recent months had truly been to serve Russian interests, then, for example, the NATO secretary general would not have left Budapest with a free hand from Hungary to negotiate and conduct NATO training and support for Ukraine, as well as to undertake a long-term financial commitment required for military support, even if Hungary will not itself participate in these NATO efforts.’