William Nattrass is a Prague-based freelance journalist and commentator.
“Hungary condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” The words ring clear, but in the context of Hungary’s actions, do they ring true?
As European allies send arms to Ukraine and try to downplay their dependence on Russian energy, Hungary has taken a radically different path. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has so far refused to send military aid to Kyiv and he recently struck a new gas deal with the Kremlin to help Hungary get through the winter. He is also more open to pursuing normal diplomatic relations with Russia, traveling to Moscow for the funeral of Mikhail Gorbachev, who he says helped central Europe “get rid of communism peacefully, without loss of life. nor blood”.
Within Europe, the country stands out like a sore thumb. And with widespread support for Orbán’s non-interventionist policy, the issue of war involvement is not even a major issue at the national level. So, is it reasonable to claim that Hungary is “pro-Russian”?
The short answer is no. Hungary’s ambivalent position is the inevitable result of a combination of domestic political influences, as well as its complex relations with Russia, Ukraine and the West. In many ways, it is the narrative of the country’s recent history.
The main problem with the simple pro-Russian label is that Hungarian attitudes towards Russia and Russians are far from friendly. Perceptions of Russia are still colored by the Soviet forces that crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising, just as the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia haunts Czechs and Slovaks to this day. Even Orbán himself was a staunch anti-communist activist in the twilight years of the Eastern Bloc.
Pro-Russian social currents are also undoubtedly much weaker in Hungary than among its Slavic neighbours. Nationalist movements in Slovakia, Serbia and the Czech Republic often share a sense of ideological kinship with Russia, linked to suspicion of the West, seeing Ukraine’s pro-Western policy as something akin to a betrayal of Slavic identity.
However, such interpretations of the war do not exert the same influence in Hungary because Hungarians are not Slavic – nor do they harbor positive attitudes towards Russians in general.
So how do you explain the country’s current pro-Russian stance?
First of all, it is important to point out that Hungarians have surprisingly negative attitudes towards Ukraine. While Russia has wronged Hungary many times in the past, Ukraine is seen to be wronging Hungarians in the present.
Relations between Budapest and Kyiv have taken a dramatically negative turn in recent years, when Ukraine introduced restrictions on national minorities aimed at combating Russian influence. Hungarians say minority communities in Transcarpathia – a region of Ukraine ceded by Hungary after World War I – have faced hostility because of these policies.
Since then, Orbán has been accused of harboring resentment. Tensions erupted in 2018 over a video that apparently showed diplomats illegally issuing Hungarian passports to people in Transcarpathia. Later, in 2019, Hungary was accused of trying to influence the outcome of elections in the region and blocked Ukraine’s NATO membership talks.
Today, from Donbass to Kosovo, events are once again proving the power of nationalist narratives about territories lost and peoples separated by the alleged injustices of history. Yet, in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the mere fact that many Hungarians have a negative opinion of Russians and Ukrainians is relevant.
And while these views have clearly influenced the Hungarian government’s policy on military aid and sanctions, other historical, economic and cultural factors have also played their part.
Many Hungarians worry about the gravitational pull wars can have on neighboring countries. In the early 1990s, Hungary only narrowly escaped being drawn into the Balkan Wars, after it was revealed that Budapest had supplied tens of thousands of Kalashnikov rifles to Croatian forces.
Orbán’s economic model built around geopolitical ambivalence has also influenced the country’s resistance to energy sanctions. Orbán describes Hungary as a “transit economy,” which can only thrive by attracting investment and opportunity from both East and West.
In this context, German-Russian energy cooperation is paradoxically considered fundamental for Hungarian national security. Orbán argues that the German-Russian energy axis remains the only way to prevent Eastern Europe from becoming “dependent on the Americans” for energy and military protection. However, his warning against US energy dominance seems bizarre given that Hungary, Germany and others have had little qualms about relying on Russia.
Finally, the economic arguments against Russia’s isolation dovetail with Hungary’s growing cultural rift with the West. The progressive values rejected by Orbán are also mocked by Moscow, and Orbán has portrayed the country as emblematic of traditional mores. “Russians speak an ancient language. When we listen to them, it’s as if we hear the sounds of the past,” he said.
With Orbán presenting Western progressivism to Hungarians as dangerous, it’s no surprise that Russia’s more traditional cultural values hold a certain appeal. As Attila Demkó, Director of the Center for Geopolitics at Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, puts it: “After 12 years of pressure from the EU and the West”, many Hungarians fall into the trap of feeling that “if the West is “evil”, there must be some “truth” in what Russia is doing.
And since Orbán’s voters believe they have been demonized by their supposed Western allies in recent years, why, they might wonder, should they support a sanctions agenda?
Hungary’s position on the war in Ukraine is not based on popular pro-Russian social currents. Rather, it is the result of historical and recent political factors, many of which were shaped by Orbán himself.
Simply put, Hungary is not pro-Russia. But even so, President Vladimir Putin’s invasion did not make him pro-Ukraine either.