It is a risky business these days to write about Ukraine in a periodical; by the time the piece appears the situation has changed dramatically, as happened after the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft on 17 July. But misunderstandings about the position of Hungary demand clarifications. From the outset Hungary has clearly condemned the violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine. Hungary supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and wants to continue close friendly relations with that neighbour, based on the bilateral Treaty signed on 6 December 1991. At the same time it wants to continue and expand its friendly relations with the Russian Federation, based on the bilateral Treaty signed also on 6 December 1991. Hungary also adheres to the Declaration on the Principles of Cooperation between the Republic of Hungary and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic on Safeguarding the Rights of National Minorities signed on 31 May 1991, and to the Declaration on the Principles of Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Hungary on Safeguarding the Rights of National, Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities, signed on 11 November 1992.

A year ago NATO looked set to expand its membership with several countries seeking admission, albeit at the same time facing serious questions about its future. Its mission in Afghanistan was costing money and lives with very meagre results to show for it. There were divergent interests and threat perceptions among its constituent states. During a time of financial austerity only Norway and tiny Estonia acceded to the admonitions of the United States that members should spend at least two per cent of their GDP on defence. And then, almost like a deus ex machina, along came Russia’s President Putin to restore unity in NATO. The annexation of Crimea and the undeniable intervention in eastern Ukraine heralded much more than a new chapter for the post-Cold War world. It was a wake-up call, the end of “reset”, and the end of illusions about a friendly and cooperative Russia. The alarm bells rang especially loud in Russia’s “near abroad”, a term not often used today but one which expresses a hard fact. The perception often heard, that Hungary’s assessment of the actions of Russia differs from the rest of the alliance is not true. Together with our Visegrád partners we were among the first to condemn the aggression and express our solidarity with Ukraine. But like so many countries, we have our special concerns and interests in this crisis. The Baltic States, Poland and Romania perceive a security threat. Germany, France, Italy, Norway and Greece see their strong economic relations with Russia in jeopardy after the imposition of sanctions. All the countries whose energy supply relies heavily on Russian exports are also wary. Unfortunately Putin did not use the many avenues offered for a decent retreat. In response to Russia’s conduct in eastern Ukraine, and its material and propaganda support for the “separatists”, the European Union and the United States had little alternative but to proceed to the third grade of sanctions, despite knowing that sanctions would cause harm in both directions. While this new East–West antagonism is bad enough, it cannot be called a full superpower confrontation. And it would be far more dangerous if NATO’s enlargement had not taken place in 1999 and 2002 and if the new members instead lay defenceless.


Fifteen years ago, on 12 March 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland acceded to the 1949 Washington Treaty. With that three former members of the one-time Warsaw Pact, three nations who had several times showed their opposition to communism and Soviet domination, became members of the Atlantic Alliance. Three years later, with a “Big Bang”, the Baltic States, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia followed suit. Those two steps provided a remarkable boost for post-Cold War peace and security. During the Cold War, for the 200-million- strong population of Central Europe living between the Germans and the Russians, the US (and NATO) was the official enemy, but Americans in reality were never and nowhere as popular as in those countries caught on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. At the moment when we finally regained our freedom and independence in 1990, we were still members of that alliance of the unwilling, the Warsaw Pact, and Soviet forces remained stationed on our territories. Prime Minister Antall of Hungary on 7 June 1990, at the last meeting of the highest body of the Pact, held in the Soviet capital, called for the immediate dissolution of its military organisation, and proposed talks “to review the nature, the function and the activities of the Warsaw Treaty”. Whereas President Gorbachev still hoped that both the military and the political alliance could be maintained, Antall contradicted him: “During the process of forging European unity, it is expedient to rely on stable Atlantic cooperation”, although he added that “the Soviet Union must be part of the process of European integration”.

The Visegrád Cooperation, established upon the initiative of Antall, greatly facilitated the final dissolution of the Pact. After it was eventually achieved, with Gorbachev’s consent, we were still convinced that the fundamental political changes of 1989 and 1990 could be guaranteed only by membership in NATO, and so the intention to join the Alliance was publicly announced at the Prague Summit of the V3 in May 1992. At that time NATO was still far from ready to endorse the idea. What was needed was a strong campaign, primarily in the United States, to convince its leaders and public opinion that it was in the interest of NATO to expand eastward, and that Russia’s opposition should not prevent that process taking place. How difficult the task was is shown by an op-ed in The Washington Post as recently as on 16 March 2014 by John Matlock, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1987–91. He deplored that NATO admitted members of the former Soviet Bloc, since by doing so it violated “the understanding that the United States would not take advantage of the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe”. Fortunately most American decision-makers, including the Senate, realised and respected the desire and determination of the Central Europeans. Ron Asmus, Steve Larrabee and others played a crucial role in convincing US leaders and public opinion about the wisdom of enlargement. The crisis in the Balkans at the time undoubtedly helped that process along – like the present crisis in Ukraine could also sway minds over another enlargement.

About ten years ago Ron Asmus, who left us far too early, explained that “the purpose of NATO enlargement was to help lock in a new order of peace in Europe following communism’s collapse and the end of the Cold War. We wanted to promote a process of pan-European integration and reconciliation that would make the prospect of armed conflict as inconceivable in the eastern half of the continent as it had become in the western half.…itwasalsoourhopethat new allies from Central and Eastern Europe, having fought hard to regain their freedom and independence, would also bring fresh blood, ideas and enthusiasm to NATO and help us transform it for a new era”.(1)

NATO has always stood for peace, unlike the Warsaw Pact. When the Cold War was over many observers feared the outbreak of serious tensions, even conflicts between the countries emerging from Soviet captivity. True, in the eastern half of Europe old animosities had been put into a deep-freezer, and the thaw and their release presented new dangers, as shown by the brutal war in Yugoslavia. If the August 1991 coup in Moscow had succeeded however, the lid would have remained on restless populations, but so would the threat of a nuclear conflagration. If a free Central Europe had been left in a no-man’s land between NATO and the Russian Federation, tensions over national minorities between Poland and Lithuania, Romania and Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia (and probably Turkey, too), not to mention Hungary and three of its neighbours, might have run dangerously high. Fortunately the strict observation of human rights, including the rights of the national minorities, was declared a prerequisite for NATO membership. The prospect of joining the Alliance proved a strong incentive for proper behaviour in the applicant countries. It also encouraged the conclusion of important bilateral accords, like the treaties signed between Poland, Hungary and Romania and their neighbours, although I should add here my regret that later on NATO, like the EU, paid little attention to that issue.

Russia, or rather Russia’s opposition to an expanding – or more diplomatically “enlarging” – NATO was the biggest obstacle to be cleared by the Central European applicants for membership. My argument then as today was that the expansion of the area of stability and security in what the Russians somewhat alarmingly used to call “near abroad” did not harm Russian interests, let alone pose them a threat. On the contrary, it helped to make the Western border zone of Russia safer and more prosperous, which also worked to Russia’s advantage. Enlargement allowed Russia to concentrate on the real threats to its security: Islamic fundamentalism in its South, potential rivalry in the East, particularly around Siberia, and internal dangers like backwardness, criminality and poverty. I met many Russian politicians, and privately they agreed, but the official position of Russia did not concur. It was obvious that there was a security vacuum in Central and South-Eastern Europe, one that had to be filled. “Kein Raum ohne Herrschaft”, there is no space without a master – that was a tenet held by a political monster, but it was valid in the sense that a no-man’s land is always likely to be coveted. Central Europe was not to be left as an attractive prize, also because such a prize was likely to whet the appetite of people who found it hard to acquiesce in the disappearance of the Soviet Union.

With Slovakia under a difficult leader not in the picture, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary staged a strong campaign for NATO membership. From 1993 until the final decision to invite the three Central European countries to sign the Washington Treaty, one of my central themes was an ancient Latin warning: “Vincere scis Hannibal, victoriam uti nescis”, you know how to win but don’t know how to utilise victory. In the referendum held in Hungary over NATO membership in 1997, 85 per cent supported membership. Hungarians understood that a country that had so many times been invaded by great powers in the neighbourhood, which lost such vast territories after the First World War and one tenth of its population in the Second World War, needed security guaranteed by a strong alliance.

“All is well that ends well.” With further enlargement in 2002 and in 2009 NATO now has 28 members. Most of them fought wars against one another in the past, a scenario that is now practically unimaginable. NATO has indeed brought peace and stability to the eastern half of Europe, including the perennial powder-keg, the Balkans. That is why in all seriousness I suggest that NATO deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for having prevented a third World War after 1949 and in general for creating a stable new Europe.

I believe the West, or more properly its values, primarily democracy, won at the end of the Cold War. It was not a victory over the Russians, but over communism, over dictatorship, and for freedom and democracy. Victory was achieved by the Solidarity movement in Poland, by Gorbachev trying to modernise the Soviet Union and making peace with the West, by Hungary allowing thousands of East Germans to escape, and foremost by the appeal of Western prosperity, and the hope that it would spread to the poorer half of Europe. The hopes of 1989 and 90 have not yet been fulfilled but it is up to each country how to make good use of freedom and EU membership. NATO is there to provide security.

I could never see any valid reason for Russia’s opposition to NATO approaching its borders: it appeared an obsession born out of an outdated concept of spheres of influence. No sane Russian can imagine that NATO would ever attack Russia. The only logical explanation for its opposition to enlargement seemed a secretly harboured desire to restore the Soviet Bloc. Yeltsin, for all his shortcomings, together with his excellent foreign minister Kozirev, clearly did not want that; their vision was a “Europe, whole and free”, that democracy and the market economy should spread until Vladivostok. The dead weight of corrupt Soviet “socialism”, the seamy side of wild capitalism, greed and the rise of the oligarchs destroyed that dream. It was replaced by reborn suspicion about the West wanting to paralyse and exploit Russia. Both the US and the EU did their best to dispel Russian fears. Terrorism was rightly seen as a common threat demanding common action. But too much power, without controls, tends to corrupt visions too. If Putin had been only concerned about the rights of Russians in Ukraine, he could have obtained guarantees via peaceful means. Even a genuine referendum for the inhabitants of Crimea could have been achieved. But what happened was beyond swallowing. While countries bordering Russia see a dangerous precedent, those who are members of NATO know they are safe.



A year ago the fear persisted among many Central Europeans that they may be regarded by the US as expendable. It may have been difficult for the US to drop them as allies, but less so to simply neglect them. As Ryan Miller, a research analyst at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, DC, wrote in 2008: “From Moscow’s perspective, Central Europe sits at the centre of the chessboard, because the area between the Baltic States and the Black Sea is vital for Russia to re-establish its sphere of influence. Overstretched and confronted with a host of challenges requiring the Kremlin’s cooperation, Washington may, under the right circumstances, find itself tempted to trade away Central Europe’s security interests to win Russian cooperation on issues it considers more pressing.

Besides Georgia and Ukraine, the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme could provide another opportunity for a trade-off with the Kremlin.”(2) Whether there was such a danger of a trade-off or not, today, thanks to Putin, it is out of the question. But many countries, particularly those with a substantial Russian-speaking minority, fear that “separatists” among them one day may ask for friendly help from Mother Russia. How to reduce the danger of further Russian moves, and how to solve the root of the controversy over Ukraine?

Despite Putin’s aggressive actions I think it is beyond doubt that Russia does not want war with NATO, but rather to restore some of the authority (and fear) that it once commanded. As long as the aim was economic expansion it was accepted, even welcome. But territorial expansion is unacceptable. That’s why the 2002 Big Bang was so important, it made the Baltic States safe, it guaranteed their independence with a solid insurance policy called Article 5. But what about the rest of the “near abroad”, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and the biggest prize, Ukraine? Understandably they all want protection and guarantees against outside interference and aggression.

Putin’s behaviour towards Ukraine was prompted by the fear of “losing” that country if it is allowed to move towards the EU. It might be too much to ask from Russia to accept the eventual NATO membership of Ukraine, but what about accepting a neutral EU member Ukraine, with the prospect of say special trade arrangements with Russia?

Russia’s military intervention took place purportedly in defence of Russians in Ukraine. It is very probable that the annexation of Crimea would have taken place without the pretext of answering a request from its Russian population. I do not believe that the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, some ten-million-strong, had such serious grievances as alleged. It should be made even more difficult to commit a violation of international law by removing all possible causes, any pretext for that. So a wise course would be to deny the appearance that there is any justification for Russian concern about the rights of Russians – in Ukraine or elsewhere.

Here I must return to my ceterum censeo, to my plea and warning of 25 years standing:

the issue of national minorities, which I also recently wrote about in this periodical.(3) How to prevent ethnic conflicts leading to war, suppression or separation? There are some obvious examples. Setting aside such valid and well-working arrangements like the one in South Tyrol there are more recent cases too. Turkey has started to accommodate its Kurdish population, ending decades of terrorism and repression. Georgia suffered aggression, but before that disregarded the demands of its Abkhaz and Ossetian minorities, giving a handy pretext for a Russian intervention.

In Moldavia the Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox Gagauz community has had territorial autonomy since the mid-1990s, but that has been threatened by the Moldovan–Romanian majority. We see that the Gagauz now turn to Russia for protection. With autonomy and extensive rights for the Russians in Transnistria and elsewhere in Moldova, that country could be reunited and stabilised.

Even after the horrors in Croatia and Bosnia caused by Serbian aggression, purportedly in defence of local Serbs, and despite the catastrophe in Iraq and Syria largely due to one religious group dominating another, the world is pursuing the chimera of multiculturalism without self-government, autonomy of sorts. Territorial autonomy is not an exclusively Hungarian preoccupation. In the early phase of the war in the former Yugoslavia the international community, represented by Lord Carrington, came up with the proposal of offering a special status for the Serbs of Croatia (and, by implication for the non-Serbs in Serbia).

“Areas in which persons belonging to a national or ethnic group form a majority, shall enjoy a special status of autonomy. Such a status will provide for the right to have and show the national emblems of that group; an educational system which respects the values and need of that group; a legislative body; an administrative structure, including a regional police force; and a judiciary.”(4)

A settlement along such lines would satisfy any minority community living in the eastern half of Europe, certainly the Russians, Romanians, Poles and Hungarians in Ukraine. It would be impossible for Russia to refuse peace with Ukraine with such rights guaranteed for the Russians in East Ukraine. It is high time for the EU and the US to propose talks between Russia and Ukraine on such a basis. Today there is war in the east of Ukraine. It has elements of both a civil war and of a war by proxies. NATO or the EU is not involved, they must do their utmost to bring about peace. But without talks, without pressing not only Russia but also the victim, Ukraine, for a negotiated compromise settlement, one fears only further escalation. On the hundredth anniversary of the First World War all the diplomats and political leaders must keep their heads cool.

1 NATO Review, Summer 2003.

2 Moscow Times, 28 March 2008.

3 Géza Jeszenszky: “The Need for Satisfied Minorities”, Hungarian Review, Volume IV, No. 4, July 2013, pp.

4 Treaty provisions – in the author’s possession – for a convention between the republics of Yugoslavia, 1991.

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