Sixty-six years ago, ordinary Hungarians bravely stood up to Moscow’s empire of oppression. Yet, on its anniversary, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took aim at Europe, a curious choice given Russia’s imperialist war against Ukraine right at Hungary’s doorstep. “Let’s not bother with those who shoot at Hungary from the shadows or from the heights of Brussels. They will end up where their predecessors did,” Orbán told crowds in Western Hungary last Sunday.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, European solidarity and the transatlantic alliance have been put to the ultimate test. Amid the horrors of Russia’s genocidal war, many nations have risen to the occasion. But Hungary’s Orbán has shown his stripes: He has openly aligned himself with Vladimir Putin, and his government has demonstrated itself as an unreliable partner to the West, even as it happily avails itself of the West’s military protection and economic might.
In March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a direct appeal to Orbán in front of European Union leaders, saying, “You hesitate whether to impose sanctions or not? You hesitate whether to let weapons through or not? And you hesitate whether to trade with Russia or not? It’s time to decide already.” Since then, Orbán has given Zelensky his answer: On every count, Hungary stands with Russia.
A member of NATO since 1999, and the EU since 2004, Hungary has bitterly opposed stronger Western sanctions against Russia, strengthened energy ties with Russia, banned lethal aid from passing through its territory to Ukraine, and is dragging its feet on NATO expansion to Finland and Sweden — the only NATO ally aside from Turkey to do so.
Even more glaringly, Orbán has publicly blamed the West for provoking Russia’s actions in Ukraine, an utterly indefensible position given the genocidal war Russia has waged without provocation. In a July 23 speech, Orbán told a Hungarian-minority audience in Romania that his Russian counterpart’s justification for the war in Ukraine “does make sense, and it is worth taking seriously.” In the same speech, he made abject claims that Ukraine cannot win the war; that NATO expansion is to blame for Russian aggression; that the United States is using energy as a foreign policy weapon; and that Russia will continue to push the front line as long as NATO countries supply heavy weapons to Ukraine.
Hungary’s defense of Russia’s brutal repression abroad is a natural extension of its growing authoritarianism at home. Orbán has transformed Hungary into an illiberal autocracy. Fidesz, the country’s ruling party, has systematically eroded democratic freedoms in Hungary since it came to power in 2010. Orbán has manipulated election laws to benefit Fidesz, packed the Constitutional Court with cronies, and consolidated media control to amplify his party’s propaganda. Civil society is unable to function freely due to restrictive laws, and many individuals and groups are subject to smear campaigns.
It’s time to get tough on Hungary.
Hungary has caused a fracture in NATO’s united front against Russia, which is a grave security and credibility risk for the organization. Hungary acts as Russia’s best advocate in Europe with impunity, which not only undermines transatlantic unity, but signals NATO weakness. As a result, members of the alliance should consider downgrading relations with Hungary, especially since NATO is founded on the principles of “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” principles that Orbán has been intentionally eroding.
Bilaterally, the United States cannot sit back silently while a NATO ally aligns itself with Putin’s Russia under thinly-veiled claims of “neutrality,” and simultaneously dismantles democracy domestically. It is important that the United States speaks with a united voice — Democrats and Republicans alike — to condemn Hungary’s allegiance to Russia. We should ramp up support for independent journalism and civil society in Hungary, as well as consider other tools to limit our economic investment and military partnership with Hungary if the government’s belligerence continues. The United States has leverage, and we should demand better from a NATO ally.