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Explaining Hungary’s Foreign Policy Amid the Russian Invasion: A Small Fish in a Big Pond

Orbán - Hungary - Hungría - El American

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Imagine you’re a small, landlocked, resource-poor country trapped between two empires. One has cheap, reliable gas, but dominated you for 50 years and suffocated every attempt at independence; the other has ports and nuclear energy, but does not want to allow you to develop your national politics as a sovereign country and pretty much considers you a castaway. Plus, both empires are amid a brutal war in your biggest neighbor’s territory; one empire wants to pass weaponry through your territory, while the other threatens to cut your gas supply if you allow it.

This sums up the complicated situation where Hungary finds itself geopolitically. If you read the mainstream liberal media, you’d find yourself believing that Orbán is following an appeasement, neutrality policy in the Russian invasion of Ukraine solely because he likes Putin. While Orbán’s “friendship” with Putin is a topic that merits discussion, Hungary’s foreign policy is more nuanced than it is generally thought to be.

“With Europe going green and Russian gas being so cheap and so close to Hungary, the choice was clear; when you are a resource-poor nation, alternatives become much more black and white,” Tate Sanders, a Budapest fellow focused on energy policy told El American.

Let’s go step by step to understand Hungary’s foreign policy.

Hungary’s energy problem

Hungary is, by far, the EU country most dependent on Russian gas. The exact percentage of Russian gas imported is not known, but depending on who you ask, it goes from 80 to 95%, plus 60% of its oil importation. Moreover, almost 50% of Hungarian energy is nuclear, and guess who is helping Hungary to maintain its plants and provides Hungary with nuclear materials? That’s right, Russia.

Many countries and analysts have criticized Hungary for its dependence on Russian gas. Poland also bought about half its gas from Russia and will cut it entirely at the end of the year; Germany relies about 40% on Russian gas and stopped the development of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, among many other examples. Thus, many ask: why doesn’t Hungary just do the same? Well, there are many differences. 

First, the level of dependence between Hungary and the other countries is simply incomparable. Second, Hungary is a landlocked country, which means it’s harder for it to buy liquid gas. Third, although about half of its energy comes from nuclear power, it does not have the capacity to expand it by itself.

All this means there’s a large difference between Germany, Poland, or France reducing their dependence on Russian gas and oil and Hungary doing so. All these countries can buy liquid gas and expand their nuclear capacity by themselves, which mitigates the impact of not buying Russian gas. Plus, Germany pretty much sabotaged its energy independence by eliminating its nuclear plants and buying more Russian gas—Hungary, on the other hand, did not have much of a choice.

What would happen if Hungary stopped buying Russian gas overnight? “There would almost certainly not be enough gas from other countries to fill in the void quickly. Although Hungary has been wise to add facilities to maintain gas reserves, these would probably not last long enough to buy time for the country to adjust its energy infrastructure and update international deals. At best, prices would go up significantly, but in a worst-case scenario, you might even see rationing of energy,” Sanders said.

“Russia is the most important energy partner for Hungary. There’s no sympathy after this invasion, but it will remain a fact for years to come; we cannot expect the situation to change for years because we are landlocked and cannot build LNG (liquefied natural gas) ports,” Attila Demkó, head of the geopolitics department at MCC and former member of the Hungarian delegation to NATO, told El American.

Another aspect that goes overlooked when analyzing the Hungarian policy during the war is that the conflict occurred a mere month before the elections. Announcing sanctions against Russia that would increase energy prices would’ve been political suicide for Orbán in a country where almost 90% of the population does not support sanctions on Russia if it implies paying higher energy and gas bills.

NATO and Hungary

However, Hungarian authorities believe that the tensions between NATO and Hungary have been overstated. “NATO and Hungary are in full agreement,” said Tamás Menczer, spokesman of the Hungarian foreign ministry. NATO has constantly stated it is not a participant in the conflict and has ensured the war does not go beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Moreover, on April 8, the European Parliament voted on a resolution that called for additional sanctions on Russia, including “an immediate full embargo on Russian imports of oil, coal, nuclear fuel and gas,” which had the support of Fidesz MEPs, who said they “disagreed with the sanctions in the resolution but voted in favor of them to support European unity and Ukraine.”

Hungary was quick to denounce the Russian invasion as an aggression. Orbán also condemned and called for an international investigation of the Bucha massacre. In a press conference after his victory, PM Orbán was asked if Putin requested him to veto European sanctions against Russian gas and oil, and answered that “Hungary is a NATO and EU member in opposition to [Russia’s invasion], therefore, Russia will never ask for anything.”

Tensions within the Visegrad group

Hungary’s neutrality earned criticism from the Visegrad group, the small yet influential alliance between like-minded Central European countries in the EU, especially Poland, which has been the moral leader of the EU response against the Russian invasion.

The differences between the Polish and Hungarian response has deep economic and historic roots.

“We in Poland have the feeling that, to some extent, there is a possibility that if Russia succeeds, the next goal will be our country. So, from the very beginning, we rushed with help–not only helping refugees, which Hungary has been doing as well– but also with weapons and sanctions. Hungary, from the very beginning, said it was not their war,” Jacek Karnowski, writer and editor at Polish Weekly, an influential conservative magazine in Poland, told El American.

“The Russian aggression against Ukraine clearly took Budapest by surprise; up to the end, it seemed to think that the military build-up around Ukraine’s borders was just a demonstration. They also did not trust the signals coming from Poland,” Karnowski added in a column published after Orbán’s re-election.

Most Hungarian conservative analysts agree that despite the image that Orbán enjoys a personal friendship with Putin, the relationship is more of convenience than anything else. “Hungary is dependent on Russian gas due to its proximity and low price. As a result, Hungarian foreign policy has always aimed to be a balanced one, separating interest-based cooperation regarding energy policy from political relations, which have always been pro-NATO and pro-Europe,” Marcell Bakos, editor at Axióma, told El American.

“Hungary, therefore, does condemn Russian military aggression against Ukraine, but it does not support cutting oil ties with Russia or allowing NATO weapon shipments to cross from Hungary to Ukraine as it would seriously threaten Hungarian security and energy interests,” he added.

Even if the relations within the Visegrad Group are probably at their lowest, Karnowski is optimistic that things will eventually work out. “The Polish-Hungarian alliance was mainly about opposing the European Union, sanctions, centralization, and defending the Europe of nations. This is still valid. Of course, emotions play an important and they are now a bit against Mr. Orbán but I think it’s nothing we can overcome in the future.”

In fact, even if Poland has openly criticized Hungary for its position in the conflict, it has not overstated its influence on the overall EU policy. Poland’s PM, Mateusz Morawiecki, said “it’s Germany that is the main roadblock on sanctions. Hungary is for the sanctions” against Russia.

After all, Hungary is on the small side of EU members and whether it buys or not gas from Russia is more symbolic than anything else as it would hardly have any impact on the Russian economy. Germany, on the other hand, needlessly increased its reliance on Russian energy while reducing its own nuclear production.

Unfulfilled promises and the future of Hungary’s energy policy

Hungary’s dependence on Russian gas is not a new topic, even if it’s more hotly contested than ever before. In fact, one of Orbán’s main campaign promises in 2018 was to reduce the dependence on Russian gas by 2022 with an energy alliance with Romania, which didn’t happen, and although certain plans to diversify and reduce dependence exist, they are not short-term projects.

“Poland also depended on Russian gas and oil but from the very beginning, we tried to become as independent as possible. We built special LNG ports, we import oil from different sources. For Hungary, it’s a bit more difficult, but it’s not impossible,” Karnowski told El American.

“I think that, frankly, Hungary overrated the benefits of the cheap Russian gas because Poland has higher prices but we are developing at the same pace, even faster. So I think, there is kind of an illusion that cheap Russian gas gives you a big economic advantage that will turn you into an economic champion,” he added.

“The Hungarian government has tried to mitigate complete dependence on Russian oil by supporting the construction of alternative gas pipelines. One of these is the LNG terminal located on Krk island (Croatia). The importance of this terminal cannot be understated as it is even included in Hungary’s national energy strategy. Hungary made an agreement with Shell—the owner of the terminal—which will ensure gas supply from Krk in the future,” Bakos told El American.

If the Paks nuclear plant—upgraded with Russian help—and solar energy plans increase as planned, gas might be the source of only 10% of Hungary’s energy by 2030, Orbán said in the above-mentioned press conference, which would make its reliance on Russian gas less relevant.

Still, these and other plans are long-term, and the situation in Ukraine merits short-term solutions, which Hungary, unfortunately, lacks. “There are future options from countries such as Azerbaijan or the United Arab Emirates, but these are longer-term projects that would probably take too much time. As for being landlocked, this is not a great situation to be in, because you have to have at least one other country have the facilities to either take gas or oil in with pipelines and in the case of LNG, a very specialized terminal. This just adds more headaches and heartburn, taking up more time, something that Europe doesn’t have a bunch of at the current moment with the war,” Sanders concluded.

For countries such as Poland and Hungary, which are historically trapped between empires, geopolitical decisions are pretty much black and white. Situations such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine show these countries you can’t shake hands with God and the Devil, in the end, you have to serve somebody.

“We are in a geopolitical corridor. Poland is on the road from the East to the West, between Russia and Germany; we can’t just escape, we can’t avoid that conflict. You have the choice to submit to Russian power or refusing to do so. There’s no middle point,” Karnowski said.

It seems that the time to decide came to Hungary at a moment it did not expect. The general sentiment seems to be that Russia is a toxic, yet necessary partner–especially when Europe seems to bash Hungary for its dependence without trying to present any viable alternative.

Still, Hungary is one of the most pro-EU and pro-NATO countries within both alliances. Hungarians and their government see themselves as members of Europe’s future—even if they’re optimistic about having solid relations with Russia, they see such a relationship as merely practical, while relations with Europe are seen as existential. “We continue to see our future in the European Union and want to play an active role in shaping the European Union of the future,” Orbán said in the press conference. 

Let’s hope the European Union believes the same.

Edgar is political scientist and philosopher. He defends the Catholic intellectual tradition. Edgar writes about religion, ideology, culture, US politics, abortion, and the Supreme Court. Twitter: @edgarjbb_ // Edgar es politólogo y filósofo. Defiende la tradición intelectual católica. Edgar escribe sobre religión, ideología, cultura, política doméstica, aborto y la Corte Suprema. Twitter: @edgarjbb_

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