William Nattrass is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Prague.
“Hungary condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” The words sound unequivocal, but in the context of Hungary’s actions, do they ring true?
As European allies send weapons to Ukraine and try to minimize their dependence on Russian energy, Hungary has been taking a starkly different path. So far, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has refused to send military aid to Kyiv, and he recently concluded a new gas deal with the Kremlin to help Hungary weather the winter. He’s also more open to continuing normal diplomatic relations with Russia, traveling to Moscow for the funeral of Mikhail Gorbachev, who he said helped Central Europe “rid itself of Communism peacefully, without loss of life or blood.”
Within Europe, the country stands out like a sore thumb. And with broad support for Orbán’s non-interventionist policy, the question of involvement in the war isn’t even a major wedge issue domestically. So, is it reasonable to claim that Hungary is “pro-Russia”?
The short answer is no. Hungary’s ambivalent stance is the inevitable result of a combination of domestic political influences, as well as its complex relationships with Russia, Ukraine and the West. In many ways, it is the story of the country’s recent history.
The main problem with the simple pro-Russia label is that Hungarian attitudes toward Russia and Russians are far from friendly. Perceptions of Russia are still colored by Soviet forces crushing the Hungarian uprising of 1956, just as the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia haunts Czechs and Slovaks to this day. Even Orbán himself was a fervent anti-communist campaigner in the twilight years of the Eastern Bloc.
Pro-Russia social currents are also arguably much weaker in Hungary than among its Slavic neighbors. Nationalist movements in Slovakia, Serbia and the Czech Republic often share a sense of ideological kinship with Russia, one 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 don’t exert the same sway in Hungary because Hungarians aren’t Slavic — neither do they nurture positive attitudes to Russians in general.
So how, then, to account for the country’s current pro-Russia stance?
First off, it’s important to highlight that Hungarians have strikingly negative attitudes toward Ukraine. While Russia has harmed Hungary at various times in the past, Ukraine is seen as wronging Hungarians in the present.
Relations between Budapest and Kyiv took a dramatically negative turn in recent years, when Ukraine introduced restrictions on national minorities intended to combat Russian influence. Hungarians claim minority communities in Transcarpathia — a region of Ukraine ceded by Hungary after World War I — faced hostility because of these policies.
Since then, Orbán has been accused of fostering resentment. Tensions flared 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 negotiations over the row.
Today, from the Donbas to Kosovo, events are again proving the potency of nationalist narratives over lost territory and peoples separated by the claimed injustices of history. Yet, in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the simple fact that many Hungarians have negative views of both Russians and Ukrainians is pertinent.
And while these views have clearly influenced Hungarian government policy on both military aid and sanctions, other historical, economic and cultural factors have played their part as well.
Many Hungarians worry about the gravitational pull that wars can have on neighboring countries. In the early 1990s, Hungary only narrowly escaped being sucked into the wars in the Balkans, after it was revealed that Budapest had been supplying tens of thousands of Kalashnikov rifles to Croat forces.
Orbán’s economic model built around geopolitical ambivalence has influenced the country’s resistance to energy sanctions as well. Orbán describes Hungary as a “transit economy,” which can only thrive by drawing investment and opportunities from both East and West.
In this context, German-Russian energy cooperation is paradoxically believed to be fundamental to Hungarian national security. Orbán argues that the German-Russian energy axis remains the only way to stop Eastern Europe from becoming “dependent on the Americans” for energy and military protection. Though, his warning against American energy dominance does seem bizarre given that Hungary, Germany and others have had few qualms about relying on Russia.
Finally, the economic arguments against cutting Russia off dovetails 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 old language. When we listen to them, it’s as if we are hearing the sounds of the past,” he said.
With Orbán presenting Western progressivism to Hungarians as dangerous, it should come as no surprise that Russia’s more traditional cultural values exert a certain appeal. As Attila Demkó, head of the Center for Geopolitics at Budapest’s Mathias Corvinus Collegium, says: “After 12 years of pressure from the EU and the West,” many Hungarians fall into the trap of feeling that “if the West is ‘bad,’ there must be some ‘truth’ in what Russia is doing.”
And as Orbán voters believe they’ve been demonized by their supposed Western allies in recent years, why, they might ask, should they back a sanctions program?
Hungary’s stance on the Ukraine war isn’t based on popular pro-Russia social currents. Rather, it is the result of historical and recent political factors, many of which have been shaped by Orbán himself.
Simply put, Hungary isn’t pro-Russia. But even so, President Vladimir Putin’s invasion hasn’t made it pro-Ukraine either.