English-speaking commentators describe Hungary’s position towards the Russian-Ukrainian war as “neutral” or, in worse instances, “pro-Putin”. But the term Prime Minister Viktor Orbán uses, “strategic calmness”, is more loaded.
There are four elements to it. The first three are aligned with the rest of Europe: support for European sanctions (apart from a ban on Russian energy imports); support for Ukrainian refugees; and the supply of humanitarian aid into Ukraine. The fourth is to stay out of the war, by denying military supplies to Ukraine and prohibiting lethal weapons to transfer through Hungary on the way to Ukraine.
This stance provoked negative responses from Western partners, but it received a demonstrably positive response from Hungarian voters who rewarded the ruling party Fidesz with its fourth supermajority in Sunday’s General Election.
Viktor Orbán was swift to condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine at the start of the war, standing up for its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Hungary was the first to reverse Russian energy supplies to Ukraine, thereby supplying emergency gas to the Ukrainian population. Hungary also supported EU sanctions and, despite the rumours, did not block the banning of Russia from using SWIFT. The only sanction Budapest continues to oppose is a full embargo on Russian energy.
On this score, Hungary is in league with the main European economies, including Germany, France and Italy. The majority of Hungarian households depend on Russian energy imports, so the Hungarian government is unwilling to ban them and make energy more expensive for the domestic population.
During the campaign, the Opposition parties blamed Orbán’s pre-war policies for increasing the country’s energy dependency on Russia. His government had signed a deal with Moscow to modernise Hungary’s nuclear power plant in Paks (the deal now jeopardised by the war and sanctions). Since then, Fidesz has committed to gradually reduce Russia’s monopoly on energy, while also appealing to the electorate by capping prices.
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Fidesz’s policies to ease the financial burden of the conflict on households won favour with voters. In contrast, the united Opposition (combining parties from the far-left and the far-right) failed to make an impact – its campaign seemed reactionary, opposing whatever Fidesz said without coming up with a single original thought. While many expected that the unity of the Opposition would be enough to defeat Fidesz, it proved impossible to coordinate such ideologically diverse parties.
If Hungary is aligned with the EU on sanctions, its refusal to provide or facilitate weaponry is prompting severe criticism. Asked during the campaign which side Hungary is on, Orbán replied: “Hungarians are not Ukrainians, neither Russians”, so in the war “Hungary stands on Hungary’s side“. And when challenged by President Zelensky at the European Council, he countered: “It is in Volodymyr Zelensky’s interest to have Hungary, and every other NATO country, enter the war on his nation’s behalf. But it is not in the interest of Hungary”.
Orbán’s policy is to keep Hungary and Hungarians out of the war. Near to the Hungarian-Ukrainian border is the Transcarpathian region, which is home to 150,000 Hungarians. Military transfers from Hungary to Ukraine would have to pass through this region. From Hungary’s perspective, any attack on military supplies in this region would be an attack on territory inhabited by ethnic Hungarians and dual citizens. This would jeopardise the lives of Hungarians whom the Hungarian Government has vowed to protect.
So far, “strategic calmness” has been successful in preventing a strike against Transcarpathia. The election result suggests that the safety of these Hungarians matters to the Hungarian public – a point underestimated by the United Opposition which said it was prepared to send combat troops to Ukraine.
Orbán’s refugee policy also needs explaining. Hungary has already welcomed over half a million Ukrainian refugees and counting, equivalent to 5% of the total population and the highest intake per capita in the European Union. This has wrong-footed critics but Hungary’s policy is entirely aligned with the policy it pursued during the 2015 migration crisis. Refugees from Ukraine are coming to Hungary legally – Hungary is the first peaceful country they reach, and they are fleeing war, not economic deprivation.
In contrast, immigrants on Hungary’s southern border are being stopped because they have passed through several safe and stable countries before reaching Hungary. Last year 123,000 illegal migrants were denied entry to Hungary from the south. This year the number has already reached 34,000. Hungary’s migration policy is consistent – refugees fleeing war are welcomed; economic and illegal migrants are not.
During the election campaign, the conflict became a critical dividing line. Fidesz successfully depicted the situation as a choice between “peace or war”, promoting “strategic calmness” as the only way to stay out of the war. Approving sanctions and providing humanitarian aid while, at the same time, disallowing the provisions of weapons and only permitting legal immigration, won the favour of the electorate.
Viktor Orbán is not a consensus politician, but his “strategic calmness” has won him another supermajority.
Lili Naómi Zemplényi is a History, Politics and Economics graduate from University College London. She was a Pinsker Fellow in 2020 and a Don Lavoie Fellow at the Mercatus Center in 2021-2022. Her articles are regularly published on the Hungarian Conservative and the Danube Institute politics blogs.