HUNGARY’S MOOTED NATO ‘OPT-OUT’: EMPTY THREAT OR SERIOUS PROPOSAL?

It is not yet clear whether Hungary is just an unwilling ally or rather a Trojan horse that is already preparing to switch sides.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Europe’s enfant terrible, is a master of making unexpected and surprising statements.

His latest came during his weekly Friday radio interview, in which he stated that Hungary is now both in and out of NATO, or “non-participant”. Although he explained this is not yet a true “opt-out”, Hungarian diplomats and military leaders, he said, have been looking for some time into the possibility of Hungary remaining a member of NATO without participating in operations outside of its mandated area.

During the interview, Orban restated his well-known and unequivocal position on the Russia-Ukraine war. It is a war between two Slavic peoples that the West has nothing to do with; NATO’s task should be to isolate the war and not to escalate it; and Hungary does not wish to participate in the war at any level, neither militarily, logistically nor financially.

Orban did not reveal any further details about this Hungarian “opt out” that is apparently in the works, though many experts believe his statement should not be given too much weight because there is no real intention or content behind it. Partly it was a bluff, partly a war-and-peace theme framed by Orban’s Fidesz party for the election campaign currently underway for the European Parliament.

Communicated via all possible media channels, Fidesz claims that those who want peace should vote for Fidesz, because the opposition and, of course, Western leaders are driving Europe and Hungary into war. Only Fidesz and the prime minister can protect the Hungarian people from the horrors of a Third World War. Recently, Hungarians have been threatened with the nightmare of a nuclear war, from which only Orban can protect them. It is not in dispute that Orban always subordinates everything to domestic politics and within that to his own hold on power, so we cannot rule out this explanation.

Yet at the same time, the “opt-out” statement comes amid a wider context, which could lead us to draw more worrying conclusions about whether Hungary is just an unwilling ally or actually preparing to switch sides.

Mind your language
The Hungarian government’s relationship with NATO has long been conflictual, constrained and ambivalent.

For many years, practically since the beginning of Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014, the Hungarian government has blocked Ukraine’s rapprochement and high-level cooperation with NATO.

The ostensible reason for this was the Ukrainian education and language law passed in 2017, which undoubtedly restricted the use of minority languages in certain circumstances. This legislation was primarily aimed at limiting the rights of the Russian minority, but they undoubtedly adversely affected and discriminated against Ukraine’s Hungarian, Polish, Romanian and other ethnic minority populations as well.

The Hungarian government took a different position than either the Polish or Romanian governments on this issue; while the latter two sought a separate agreement with the Ukrainian state, Hungary demanded the repeal of the law in its entirety, which gave the impression that it was representing not only its own interests but also those of Russia in the matter.

Further reasons for forming this impression are not hard to find. Although Orban eventually participated in all 13 of the EU’s sanctions packages against Russia, he did so reluctantly, stalling for time, extorting concessions, and threatening to use his veto. Perhaps the most infamous was the case of Patriarch Kirill, Moscow’s war-mongering bishop, who was removed from the sanctions list following a Hungarian veto.

Since 2018, the dubious development bank with Russian majority ownership, the International Investment Bank (which everyone dubbed a “spy bank”), operated freely out of Budapest. The Hungarian government only cancelled the headquarters agreement when the US threatened severe sanctions and the bank’s finances were crumbling.

There is no doubt that at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Hungary was highly dependent on Russian energy supplies. Common sense would have demanded that the government ease this dependency and diversify Hungary’s energy imports. Yet just the opposite has occurred. After the start of the war, the agreement on accelerating the construction of the Paks 2 nuclear power plant was signed with Russia’s Rosatom, which will only increase and prolong Hungary’s vulnerability to and dependency on Russia. Although the technical conditions exist and are right for oil and gas import diversification since Hungary is connected to six of its neighbours through interconnectors, no meaningful steps have been taken to diversify energy supplies.

The public service and pro-government media also largely cleave to the Kremlin’s narrative over the war in Ukraine. This clearly has had a major impact on public opinion. While at the outset of the invasion, the Hungarian public was clearly critical of President Vladimir Putin and Russia, today the situation has not only moved in the Russian president’s favour, but a significant portion of the pro-government audience has become anti-Ukrainian and takes an understanding attitude towards Russia’s war of conquest.

This attitude is personified by Peter Szijjarto, the Hungarian foreign minister. Less than two months before the aggression, Szijjarto received the highest Russian state award, the Druzhba (Friendship), from his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Szijjarto has since refused to return this award and still refers to Lavrov as his “good friend”. Since the beginning of the war, he has visited Russia seven times, met Foreign Minister Lavrov six times, and has also visited Belarus, Russia’s nominal ally in its war with Ukraine.

Orban has also visited Russia since the war began, although it was to attend Mikhail Gorbachev’s funeral in September 2022 and, according to reports, he did not meet President Putin. But Orban made up for that a month or so later when he was in Beijing for an international forum marking the 10th anniversary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Incidentally, three weeks before Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Orban visited Moscow, where he had a five-hour intimate exchange of views with Putin.

At the same time, neither Orban nor Szijjarto have visited Kyiv since the beginning of the war. Negotiations are currently underway to improve relations between the two countries, but they are progressing at a snail’s pace. In a recent telephone conversation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky invited Orban to the June peace summit in Switzerland, yet so far it is not clear whether and at what level the Hungarian leadership will attend. Most experts rule out Orban’s personal participation in the talks; if there is Hungarian participation at all, most probably it will not be at the highest level.

Much of this might be construed as Hungary hedging its bets over the war in Ukraine and trying to balance its national interests. But there are more worrying examples of Hungarian collusion with the Kremlin on a deeper level.

Hacked or handed?
Documents relating to a previously reported spying case at Szijjarto’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade – vigorously denied by the government at the time – have recently surfaced.

Two years ago, it was leaked to the press that a serious national security breach had taken place at the Foreign Ministry when hackers from the Russian military and civilian intelligence services (GRU and FSB) penetrated the IT system of the ministry, allowing them unrestricted access to harvest valuable, secret information. A total of 4,000 computers and 930 servers were reportedly compromised.

When confronted by the independent media with the story in March 2022, the foreign minister and other government officials denied everything, calling the story a campaign lie coming as it did just before the April general election of that year. However, official documents have now emerged that clearly confirm the fact and scale of the intrusion – and the government knew all about it.

The government is now in a tricky situation: no longer able to deny it, its officials now try to trivialise and belittle it. They claim there are hacking attempts every day and from all directions, and they won’t talk about it for reasons of national security. It is striking how far they will go to protect Hungarian-Russian relations based on what they call “mutual respect and trust”.

According to Daniel Hegedus, a foreign policy analyst at the German Marshall Fund, this was no accidental intrusion, but a conscious transfer of information on behalf of the Hungarian authorities to the Russian side. Of course, this cannot be proven, but given the context, it seems plausible. Likewise, although I have not seen any clear evidence, report or document substantiating it, intelligence sharing between Hungary and its Western allies is understood to be marked by a reluctance to share confidential information.

The government’s ambivalence regarding NATO membership is well illustrated by the fact that the 75th anniversary of the founding of NATO and the 25th anniversary of Hungary’s NATO membership were not accompanied by any state celebrations or events, unlike in other fellow Visegrad Group countries – Czechia and Poland – that joined the alliance in the same year. Only civil society events and academic events reminded us of these important anniversaries.

In view of all of this, we can no longer be sure that when Orban talked in his radio interview about a possible unilateral path, a Hungarian opt-out within NATO, he was not being serious about signalling the beginning of an attempt to distance his country from the defensive alliance or even leave it altogether.

Unfortunately, it is not yet clear whether Hungary is just an unwilling ally or rather a Trojan horse that is already preparing to switch sides. Neither of these options can be ruled out.

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