Attila Demkó is a Hungarian security policy expert, writer, and former advisor to the Hungarian NATO mission and Ministry of Defense who currently directs the Center for Geopolitics at the Matthias Corvinus Collegium. Dr. Demkó spoke with El American about the current war in Ukraine, the future of Russian-NATO relations, and the Hungarian policy on the invasion. The interview has been edited for clarity.
According to Western media, Ukraine is winning the war. According to Russian media, however, it is the opposite. What do you think is really going on in this war?
I think this war is not going well neither for Russia nor for Ukraine. Russia failed in its military operation and what happened in Kyiv was not a disaster, but a military defeat. Now, the offensive in the Donbas is advancing very slowly and Russia is finally achieving some of its objectives. On the other hand, in this battle Ukraine is taking more casualties due to the concentration of Russian artillery.
In the long term, it is very difficult to contemplate a Ukrainian victory and this discourse is too optimistic because Russia can use more lethal weapons in the war—I am not referring to nuclear or chemical weapons, but to the destruction of gas and oil infrastructures, ports, etc. In other words, Russia has more tools at its disposal, tools that Ukraine does not have despite Western support. Russia has more population, tanks, artillery and aircraft to use, and Ukraine is making a maximum effort. So, in terms of a long war, Russia has more options and capabilities.
Why is Russia not using all these capabilities?
Partly to take fewer casualties and also because the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure can be a good bargaining tool. There is also the fact that they do not believe they are losing the war and thus do not consider it necessary. These may be the reasons, although it is really hard to know.
However, in Russia, the idea of full-scale mobilization does not seem very popular, on the other hand, the hardliners accuse Putin of failing in the war. Do you think that a new Russian military setback could complicate the Kremlin’s control?
I think there is discontent with how the war is developing. Not only by liberals but also by the more nationalistic sectors. Yet, it seems that the majority of the population supports the war. Partly because of propaganda, but also because of a wounded sense of national pride. I do not see it impossible for mobilization to take place. However, it would be quite difficult and that is why Russia is trying to avoid it.
For now, Putin’s power seems solid. However, we know nothing for sure about his illnesses, and it is difficult to know what is going on in the Kremlin, and there is no one who can replace him. Besides his popularity, his circle of power are his “old friends” who owe him everything and would hardly let him fall unless there is a huge defeat.
Is such a defeat possible?
It is very difficult. The Ukrainians are very good at defending, but attacking is a very different thing. The Russian advantage in numbers, artillery, tanks and aircraft is very great. These advantages lose their importance in battles in cities or fortifications, but they make a major Russian defeat very unlikely.
Therefore, taking a large city like Kharkiv would be very difficult and costly for the Russians.
Even the smaller towns in the Donbas are proving to be a problem for the Russians. Severodonetsk has 150,000 inhabitants, Lysychansk has 100,000. And there are big cities like Zaporiyia, Dnipro, or Mykolaiv, which are going to be immensely difficult to take.
In recent weeks, some Western leaders and media have started talking about territorial cessions from Ukraine to Russia. This has not boded well in Ukraine, and likely says that countries like Germany or France want to get back to business with Russia.
A month ago, the Americans and the British said that Ukraine could win the war, but the Germans have never said that. It seems to me that their position is more realistic and obeys their own agenda. However, the Americans and British are not so enthusiastic now either. In the British press, there is a change of tone and it is no longer so favorable to hand over everything that the Ukrainians are asking for. I don’t know what the reason is, but we have to realize that Russia cannot really be defeated, although it can be made to pay a high price. Ukraine can only win if Putin dies and there is an internal crisis in Russia.
Aleksey Arestovich, one of Zelensky’s top advisors, stated a few weeks ago that, according to a pre-war study, Russia would enter a crisis if it suffered 80,000 casualties. Can Ukraine force Russia to negotiate?
It depends on how the battle for Donbas evolves. If the Russians take Donbas easily that will give them a big advantage, but if a frozen line is established that would be, in a way, a Ukrainian victory. All in all, we are talking about a loss of 20% of the territory and that the war could be repeated in a few years.
This is one issue, the other is the economic one. How can Ukraine survive economically? Ukraine needs a lot of money, 5 billion euros a month, and that money cannot be borrowed, it can only be granted. Are the Germans, Hungarians or Spaniards willing to pay 60 billion euros a year, for several years? Getting Ukraine to be a viable state after the war is a major issue. One solution could be the confiscation of Russian money, from Russian oligarchs; otherwise, it is very difficult to think how to finance Ukraine.
I think the best option to solve the war would be that frozen line. Not in terms of morality, of course. Morally, the fair thing would be for the Russians to leave Ukrainian territory, but reality has nothing to do with morality, and I am very pessimistic. Before the war, Ukraine was in a very bad situation demographically and economically, and this war makes its future even more difficult.
Hungary has been very much attacked by the media despite its support for EU sanctions against Russia. Unlike other leaders, Viktor Orbán supported the sanctions at the last EU meeting but safeguarded his country’s interests.
The media onslaught has portrayed Hungarians as the nastiest people in Europe for standing up for reality and common sense. Our position on sanctions is very logical, we support sanctions that do more harm to Russia than us. If we lose more than Russia, what is the point of sanctions? We have accepted the sanctions packages and taken in more than 700,000 Ukrainian refugees, of which about 200,000 have decided to stay in Hungary. That represents 2% of our population, imagine what it would be like for Spain to take in a million people in a few weeks.
Hungary is doing a lot for Ukraine; we don’t give the lethal weapons, but we give humanitarian aid and we heal their wounded soldiers. Of course, we do not accept everything that the Ukrainian government asks for, such as sanctions on gas, which would also be detrimental to Ukraine itself, because Ukraine benefits from them. So, when we are accused of giving bloody money to Russia for gas and oil, some of it is going to Ukraine.
Our message to Western leaders is that we live in reality. Russian oil and gas is very important for Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, among other countries. It is a reality that we cannot change. The EU needs to pursue a realistic policy with Russia.
In one of your articles, you mentioned that this war could serve to awaken Europeans to reality. Do you think that this awakening is taking place?
It is happening, at least in Eastern Europe. In Hungary, there is more and more support for the military and we already started a rearmament policy in 2016 and we are better prepared. The same is happening in Slovakia, the Baltic countries and even the Nordic countries. I think this awakening will come to all of Europe because it is necessary.
Russia has lost more tanks in this war than the sum of those of Germany and France. Europe needs armies to defend itself, protect its borders, and recover the classical values: to defend your homeland and that the army is not necessarily bad but the means to defend your life, your family, and your nation. Those values must come back and put an end to the lie of the wishful thinking of many westerners. In Hungary, I can see that more and more people are willing to serve in the army, six years ago this was not the case.
Is this war the end or the beginning of many conflicts?
It is the beginning. The world was already very bad before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but this war has been a huge irresponsibility of Russia, not only because of the terrible destruction it has brought to Ukraine, but because it will be the beginning of many wars. The famine that this war will cause will have a domino effect. Let’s think of how many wars occurred after the 2008 crisis, in Libya, Syria or Iraq. This crisis will be much worse and will affect countries with much larger populations. In the face of what is to come, Europe must be smart and above all be strong; in this new world, it will be of no use to be nice or to be “woke”.
Álvaro Peñas is a political analyst specializing in Eastern European countries. He writes for El Correo de España and several European digital outlets. He is deputy director of two programs on Decisión Radio and a regular contributor to the television channel 7NN.