How Orban’s relationship with Putin is endangering European aid to Ukraine

(CNN) — Since the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Hungary has been the weakest link in the West’s response. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has delayed Kiev’s membership talks with the EU, delayed aid deals and cast doubt on Ukraine’s ability to defeat Russia.

That is why so much attention is being paid to this meeting on Monday between the foreign ministers of Hungary and Ukraine.

While both countries have been deliberately vague about the purpose of the meeting in public statements, Western officials privately hope it will provide some clarity on whether Hungary will lift its veto on a €50 billion EU support package for Ukraine. Will remove, which was to be signed. In December.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said at the time that the reason he blocked the funds was that it was wrong to leave the block of EU budget money.

Orbán’s critics said his objections may have something to do with the fact that Brussels is reluctant to give Hungary money from the same budget because it violated requirements of EU law, fundamental values ​​enshrined in the bloc’s treaties Is. Orbán and members of his government have repeatedly denied that the two had any ties or that they violated EU rules.

But the same critics also say that Orban has very close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many Western officials believe Orbán is taking advantage of that relationship to intimidate his European allies by becoming a puppet of the Kremlin: cracking down on support for Ukraine in exchange for concessions in other areas that could harm Europe. A major priority for most people.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) is welcomed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (right) upon arriving at the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels on July 11, 2018.  (Photo by François Mori/Pool/AFP) (Photo credit should go to François Mori/AFP via Getty Images)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, left, is welcomed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg upon arriving at the NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels on July 11, 2018.

It is no secret that Hungary is becoming an uneasy partner for its EU and NATO partners. In recent years, Orbán has clashed with his European counterparts on all sorts of issues, from the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens and immigrants to the weakening of the judiciary.

He has gone to the extent of breaking the bloc’s rules and being harsh with Brussels at times, and has often emerged with concessions or rigged deals whenever he gets his way.

However, the crisis in Ukraine increasingly highlighted differences between Hungary and its Western allies.

Hungary thwarted European and US-led efforts to support Ukraine for most of two years. Orbán dragged his feet on EU sanctions against Russia and the supply of arms and financial aid to Ukraine, and played a blocking role in Kiev’s bid to join the EU.

Not only did he oppose a similar attempt by Kiev to join NATO, but he was a major obstacle to Finland and Sweden joining the alliance. It is difficult to see his opposition to the Scandinavian countries joining NATO without seeing the expansion of the defensive alliance as Putin’s main grievance.

Orban eventually dropped his objections, allowing Finland to join NATO last year, but now the Swedish proposal faces the latest hurdle in getting it approved, after the Turkish parliament voted to approve it this week. Orbán said shortly after Turkey’s vote that Hungary had indeed supported Sweden’s candidacy for NATO, although there was no definite timetable for when a similar ratification would occur in the Hungarian parliament.

Unlocking Europe’s €50 billion in aid to Ukraine is by far the most pressing issue ahead of Monday’s foreign ministers’ meeting, as EU leaders meet again on February 1 to try again to approve the package. Will meet. Western officials told CNN that even a small hint behind the scenes about what Hungary would have to do to lift its veto would be a major victory.

However, most officials who spoke to CNN fear Hungary’s latest blockage is just a taste of what’s to come and are bracing for new tantrums from Orbán that will deter future Western support for Ukraine.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - FEBRUARY 17: Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speak during a signing ceremony on several agreements between the two countries at the parliament in Budapest, Hungary on February 17, 2015.  Putin is in Budapest on a one-day visit, his first visit to an EU member state since attending celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in France in June 2014.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Orban talk during the signing ceremony of several agreements between the two countries in Budapest, Hungary on February 17, 2015. Shawn Gallup/Getty Images

There are some optimists, mostly diplomats, who say that while Orban is publicly playing to his domestic audience, he ultimately supported all previous EU and NATO measures, even if he did so through gritted teeth. “Without a doubt, many of the public messages were poor. But the interesting thing is that behind the scenes it’s not that bad,” a European security official told CNN.

The official said Hungary has a much closer relationship with Russia than other European countries and that politically Orbán needs to “signal to his audiences at home and in Moscow that he is not a NATO puppet”. “If angry tweets are the price we pay for moving forward, so be it.”

But other officials are less generous. He believes Orbán is taking advantage of his relationship with Putin to blackmail the EU and NATO by disrupting a united front. It doesn’t matter, he says, that Orbán ultimately accepts most things, but rather that it creates room for the perception that the West is not fully united.

“It is true that it is very much about the spectacle that happened to the Hungarians. Most of them eventually give up. But time and again, they have blocked important actions to support Ukraine and strengthen the Western alliance,” a German foreign affairs official told CNN.

“Whether it’s EU funding for arms support to Ukraine, NATO expansion into Scandinavia or Russian disinformation about war, they constantly disrupt Western unity.”

Western officials are finding themselves embroiled in an information war with the Kremlin. Information wars are sometimes no more complicated than zero-sum games. What could be interpreted as a rift in unity is seen as bad for the West and therefore good for Putin. This may seem overly simplistic, but many officials and diplomats see things this way.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban gestures as he speaks to the media after arriving at the European headquarters for the EU-Western Balkans summit in Brussels on December 14, 2023.

Orban gestures as he speaks to the media after arriving at the European headquarters for the EU-Western Balkans summit in Brussels on December 14, 2023. John Theiss/AFP/Getty Images

The Hungarian question is complex because of that simple truth. Orbán knows exactly how valuable his support is to the West, which is why he can target allies, even though Hungary is a net beneficiary within both the EU and NATO.

And he also knows that, more than anything, even the slightest hint of disagreement between him and these institutions is valuable to Putin. To see this, just look at Russian state media coverage of Orbán’s clashes with his allies.

For both reasons, it makes political sense for Orbán to sit in for as long as possible, because history has taught him that this is the way to extract concessions.

Of course, none of this helps Ukraine. As the war enters its third year next month, Ukrainians need clarity more than ever about how much support they will get from the West, especially in a US presidential election year.

Political psychoanalysis is a harmful distraction when you are under attack. But most European officials believe this is what we are likely to see in the coming months.

And, as the situation becomes more desperate and unstable, there will be more and more opportunities for Orbán to cause problems and reap greater political rewards for himself.

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