Ten months ago Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán denounced Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and sheltered refugees from its neighbour. But since then he has done little to change his reputation as a friend to Vladimir Putin and a threat to European unity in its support for Kyiv.
The populist prime minister has diluted sanctions against Russia, denied the transfer of weapons and other military assistance to Ukraine and blocked Kyiv’s talks on drawing closer to Nato.
So when Budapest lifted its veto over a planned €18bn EU aid package to Ukraine last month, diplomats and experts saw it as only a temporary respite in a fraught relationship between Hungary and Ukraine. They add that the countries’ deep divisions could hurt the EU’s ability to help Ukraine withstand Russia’s onslaught this year.
“Ukrainian ties in Hungary’s thinking have always been subordinated to Russian ties,” said Russia expert András Rácz at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “This year they were subordinated to EU bargaining as well. Hungary was ready to ditch Ukraine aid in the absence of an EU deal.”
Hungary has used the Ukraine aid as a bargaining tool on its EU financing packages, critics say. Brussels has issued deferred deadlines to prove it has met rule of law reforms necessary to unlock pandemic recovery and cohesion funds worth billions of euros. When the EU deliberates on that final decision, any issue that requires unanimous agreement — such as further aid to Ukraine — might again fall hostage to Hungary, other member states fear.
“The basic disagreement with Hungary is unchanged and this will resurface as an issue in the spring,” said one EU diplomat with knowledge of the talks. “The EU was willing to tolerate that unfinished business now. The alternative would have been complete isolation for Hungary.”
“An independent and sovereign Ukraine in Hungary’s national interest,” Orbán said last month. “[But] we are not interested in decoupling the European and Russian economies once and for all, so we try to save all we can from Russian-Hungarian economic co-operation.”
Hungary found itself in a precarious position at the start of the invasion of Ukraine in February. It is among the most dependent in the EU on Russian oil and gas, and has been embroiled in long disputes with Ukraine, especially over minority rights for ethnic Hungarians.
Still, after securing exemptions on aspects such as energy import bans, Budapest has voted in favour of every EU sanctions package against Moscow. And in recent weeks it has frozen €870mn of Russian assets, according to EU data quoted by the Népszava newspaper.
Other steps show Hungary intends to maintain an open dialogue with Russia. It threatened to veto sanctions in June unless symbolic leaders such as the pro-war Orthodox patriarch Kirill of Moscow were spared. Hungary last month threatened to sink the EU’s ninth sanctions package until it won exemptions for Russia’s energy, health and sports ministers.
“Orbán is openly offering escape routes for Kremlin officials,” said one senior EU official.
While other countries have expelled scores of Russian diplomats over allegations of spying, Hungary hosts an embassy with twice the staffing of Moscow’s missions in Warsaw, Prague and Bratislava combined, according to a tally by Political Capital director Péter Krekó in Budapest.
“Hungary is all out destroying its trustworthiness as an ally,” Krekó said.
Domestically, Orbán is not under pressure to change tack as many Hungarians harbour a deep mistrust of their eastern neighbours. Kyiv’s ban on minority-language education — mainly targeting Russian speakers — has affected more than 100 schools for ethnic Hungarians in western Ukraine.
Budapest has blocked Ukraine’s ambitions to draw closer to Nato, demanding it restores these minority rights. At a November meeting of Nato foreign ministers, Hungary opposed the invitation of Ukraine’s Dmytro Kuleba to formal sessions.
Budapest retiree Andrea said the Ukrainians “brought this war on themselves” as the country’s effort to join western alliances provoked Russia, parroting a line often seen in Hungary’s pro-Orbán media. “I don’t wish war on anyone but I also don’t want to get involved,” she added.
More extreme opinions are frequently heard. Zsolt Bayer, a publicist who is a close associate of the premier, has railed against Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy: “Who is he? An arrogant, dumb, corrupt, chauvinistic pig fed from America . . . We have had enough of Zelenskyy.”
Ukrainians also mistrust Hungary: 42 per cent of respondents in a recent survey saw Hungarians as hostile to Ukraine. Kuleba said last week that bilateral relations would not improve while Orban remains in power.
“Ukrainian-Hungarian ties are at a minimum level,” the EU diplomat said. “EU-Hungary ties are also abysmal, and Budapest turns to the Russians, who welcome them warmly and send them gas, never mind that they have caused a bloody and tragic war.”
Orbán has long anticipated a Russian victory, saying in July that “the Ukrainians will never win a war against Russia”.
“Hungary expected the war to go like the annexation of Crimea in 2014,” the diplomat said. “They wanted to wait until it blows over. But things changed.”
While Orbán, proud of his “Hungarian model” of relations with Russia, usually meets Putin every year, there is little sign of a thaw in relations between the premier and Zelenskyy.
“Mutual confidence between Hungary and Ukraine is at an extremely low level,” said Botond Feledy, a Brussels-based foreign policy analyst.
The two clashed just before Hungary’s election las April, when Zelenskyy’s demand that Budapest take sides over Russia’s invasion prompted an angry rebuke from Orbán. Zelenskyy invited Orbán to Ukraine in a June phone call. But the pair have yet to meet, with Orbán saying a visit to Kyiv is “not on the agenda”.
The EU diplomat added: “Hungary is ill-prepared for the complete decoupling from Russia that others now pursue.”
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels