Hungarian Perspectives on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine – PRIO Blogs

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“The Russians are going home!” (Haza Ruszkik!), one of the many slogans of the 1956 revolution against the Soviet occupation, is a term familiar to all Hungarians.

66 years later, the same phrase was chanted by crowds gathered outside the Russian embassy in Hungary to oppose President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 did not succeed, largely due to Western inaction, and Ukraine’s faith is changing from hour to hour.

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán at the Ukrainian border. Photo: primeminister.hu

Hungary shares a 133 km long border with Ukraine, significantly smaller than the Polish-Ukrainian or Romanian-Ukrainian border, and around 150,000 ethnic Hungarians live in the Zakarpattya region (Transcarpathia).

Recent relations between Hungary and Ukraine have not been without problems: the two countries have clashed on several occasions over what Hungary sees as restrictions on the rights of ethnic Hungarians to use their mother tongue in Ukraine, a complaint stemming from a 2017 law restricting the use of minority languages ​​in Ukrainian schools. The Hungarian government responded by pushing back on closer relations between Ukraine and NATO.

When it comes to Russia, time is a delicate phenomenon: in 1989, Viktor Orbán made a name for himself by demanding that Soviet troops leave Hungary, and in 2022, Orbán earned a reputation as an ally the closer to Putin in the EU. The list of economic and political ties between Hungary and Russia has deepened considerably over the past 12 years. In 2021, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó received the Order of Friendship award from Sergei Lavrov in Moscow; Hungary is dependent on Russian gas; Budapest was among the first to buy the Russian covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V; and there is a long-delayed investment in a nuclear power plant.

Building on years of increasingly close cooperation, on February 1, Orbán led a “peace mission” and met with Putin to reiterate that the sanctions against Russia are ineffective and, above all, that there is a “Hungarian way” of doing politics: being a NATO and EU member, but still has excellent relations with Russia. The current conflict in Ukraine is the real test of the Hungarian path.

Make no mistake, Hungary condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and defined Hungary’s position on the conflict: “We must stay out of this war. And what this “staying out” means is well summed up by the official government website, which opens with a photo of Prime Minister Orbán and his colleagues in the military and defense industry (men only , of course) accompanied by the following sentences: “Hungarian people’s safety is the most important” and “we ensure the safety of people coming from Ukraine”.

Ensuring the security of Hungarians takes different forms, mostly non-military: Hungary has offered to host talks between Ukrainian and Russian leaders. The government announced that it would not send arms or troops to Ukraine. It will support the common positions and sanctions of the EU and NATO regarding the conflict, and it will strengthen security around the Hungarian-Ukrainian border for two reasons: to prevent the infiltration of armed elements and to provide humanitarian aid to Ukrainian refugees.[1] who in Hungary will come to a “friendly place”, a markedly different take on the 2015 refugee crisis when Afghan and Syrian families tried to cross the border.

Border protection and humanitarian aid to Ukrainians are to be provided by the so-called Operation Eastern Shield 2022. It was reported that in the first days of the conflict the Hungarian army moved some of its troops to the region eastern border. , and a few days later, the Hungarian Defense Forces asked people not to share information about the number and whereabouts of these troops. More recently, on February 28, while the government agreed to activate the so-called European Peace Facility, allowing the EU to deliver arms to Ukraine, it decided not to allow arms deliveries. from the EU destined for Ukraine to transit through Hungarian territory, as these deliveries could be the target of military action.

The events in Ukraine are inseparable from the upcoming April elections in Hungary. Opposition leader Péter Márki-Zay criticized the government and argued that if he became prime minister he would support Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership and that if the military alliance allowed, Hungary would send arms and soldiers to Ukraine, although he added that “such a question is not yet on the table”. The opposition leader’s words provided important political ammunition to the government, allowing it to portray Orbán as the seeker of peace and Márki-Zay as the supporter of war.

It remains to be seen which narrative Hungarian voters will adopt and whether the “Hungarian way” can be maintained in times of war.

[1] As of February 27, around 62,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Hungary, but the government expects around 600,000.

  • Júlia Palik is a senior researcher at PRIO.
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