For a politician whose calling card is the struggle for Hungarian national sovereignty, Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin’s press conference on Tuesday didn’t look good for the Hungarian leader. Putin abruptly walked off the stage, brusquely beckoning Orbán to follow. The Hungarian strongman dutifully picked up his papers and traipsed across the large, socially distanced podium all alone, apparently flummoxed by whether or not to button up his suit jacket.
The unfortunate clip makes Orbán look every inch Putin’s puppet – quite the turnaround for a politician who made his name campaigning against Hungary’s lack of independence as a Soviet satellite state in the dying days of the Cold War. And as if to confirm the image of Orban as a lone stooge of Putin while the West stands by Ukraine, a simultaneous meeting took place between his long-time Eurosceptic ally, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and the Ukrainian President in Kyiv.
Orbán’s dialogue with Putin has angered his closest allies and left him open to censure, scorn and ridicule from his domestic opponents. But is the Fidesz leader really Putin’s lapdog – or could other western leaders find possible benefits in his alternative approach to Russia?
It’s worth here looking at the wider context of the Orbán-Putin summit. After the meeting, Orbán referred to himself as an emissary of peace. He claimed – rightly – that ‘in times of conflict between East and West, central Europe always loses out.’
Putin, meanwhile, pointed out that Hungary is currently able to buy gas from Russia five times more cheaply than the rest of Europe due to beneficial long-term deals made over the past year. Indeed, while other eastern European nations looked to sever economic ties with the Kremlin in 2021, Orbán strengthened them. Hungary is the only EU nation using the Sputnik V Covid vaccine, and the government has even announced plans to help manufacture the jab. Also on the agenda of the Orbán-Putin meeting was Russia’s involvement in the major Paks II nuclear development in central Hungary.
Hungary receives huge investments from EU and other western allies too, so it’s not the case that Orbán clearly favours eastern partnerships over western ones. He instead pursues what he calls ‘the Hungarian model,’ in which EU and Nato memberships coexist alongside strong economic relations with the Kremlin.
This is the opposite of what Orbán’s allies in central Europe have been trying to achieve over the past year. A new Czech government has made pivoting the country back towards the West its raison d’être, even though Russian involvement in large-scale economic projects had already been cut off by the previous regime. Slovakia backed away from the Sputnik vaccine in horror when political controversy erupted over its acquisition, while the overtly hostile stance of Poland and the Baltic states towards Russia became more entrenched in 2021.
The ’Hungarian model,’ on the other hand, does not see western and eastern interests as mutually exclusive. Orbán said on Tuesday that western sanctions against Russia have been ‘unsuccessful and doomed to failure,’ claiming they caused more harm to Hungary’s economy than Russia’s. At the same time, there is a case to be made that attempts to isolate Russia economically over the past year – amid bleak forecasts for Russia’s future growth – were a surefire way of making Putin feel paranoid and liable to lash out over his waning ‘sphere of influence’ in eastern Europe.
Some have compared Russia’s demands over Ukraine to the concessions obtained by Adolf Hitler in the 1938 Munich Agreement, when the Czechoslovak Sudetenland was ceded to Germany. In this historical context, Orbán can easily be portrayed as the dreaded appeaser; a pawn in Putin’s game doomed to be on the wrong side of history – a man whose cowardice and greed only hastens the outbreak of conflict.
Yet in reality there’s little similarity between the current standoff and pre-war events. Hitler had already declared his intention to invade the Sudetenland if German demands weren’t met when the Munich Agreement was signed; Putin has done no such thing in relation to Ukraine. Chamberlain’s fateful mistake came about because of a fervent wish to avoid conflict at all costs; but the West’s stance on Ukraine has so far been bullish and belligerent (at least in rhetoric).
There’s even a danger that in trying with such zeal to avoid a repetition of one of its greatest historical blunders, the West risks becoming blind to much more recent – and far more relevant – context for the current impasse.
The cry from Orbán’s opponents that dialogue with Putin was ‘simply treasonous’ seems misguided when diplomacy is all that stands between Europe and another war. Surely dialogue is needed now more than ever – especially as attempts by Orbán’s eastern European allies to shut Putin out over the past year may have already left the Russian President feeling backed into a corner.
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