Narratives of Hungarian–Polish Foreign Policy
after 24 February 2022

It seems as though the Russian aggression against Ukraine has generated several secondary frontlines, one of which is the misinformation campaign against Hungarian–Polish friendship. Polish public opinion is being rapidly conquered by the false claim that Hungary is pursuing a pro-Russian policy. In turn, there are voices in Hungary which strive—so far with more modest success—to portray the Polish government as irresponsible and impetuous. All I can do is urge citizens in both countries not to yield to manipulation, but to take a careful look at the situation of the other, with a view to understanding the differences of emphasis as well as the similarities between the respective Ukraine policies of Hungary and Poland. As chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Hungary’s Parliament, in what follows I present a few details to advance that deeper understanding.

Directly after outbreak of the war, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced that the Russian aggression had created a new situation in which Hungarians had to shelve their grievances over Ukraine’s minority politics in recent years, and to marshal all available resources in support of invaded Ukraine. He added that Russia’s attack on a sovereign country could not be justified or excused by any conceivable argument. Recently, the prime minister’s assessment has been reconfirmed by a political communiqué issued by Hungary’s legislature.

The position of the Hungarian government and legislature derives from Chapter I, Article 2, paragraph 3 of the Charter of the United Nations, whereby the members of the global organization undertake to settle their international disputes by peaceful means. Russia committed an egregious violation of this provision by launching an attack on Ukraine, prompting Hungary’s prime minister to declare a few days ago that since the beginning of the aggression against Ukraine, Hungarian–Russian relations no longer function as they used to.

In other words, the Hungarian government has from the start taken Ukraine’s side in the conflict, showing unambiguous and consistent solidarity for Ukraine. Within the EU, Hungary has voted all the sanctions to be imposed on Russia, and supported the delivery of defence equipment to Ukraine. In connection with this, fake news has been in wide circulation in Poland, including the rumour that Hungary vetoed the decision to ban Russia from the SWIFT system. This claim is simply not true.

It goes without saying that the border crossing points between Hungary and Ukraine, as well as between Hungary and Romania, remain open to all Ukrainian citizens and legal aliens staying in Ukraine. They can rely on all possible forms of support they can get from the government, municipalities, and NGOs of Hungary. During the early phase of the war, there were days when Hungary received the highest number of refugees per capita of the country’s population. All things considered, Hungary has been second only to Poland in terms of the number of Ukrainian refugees admitted, taking in some 10 to 15 per cent of the total who fled the country. But the question is not really how many refugees cross the border and when. It is far more important that anyone coming to us is free to cross. Hungary, like Poland, welcomes and takes care of everyone.

There has been a massive outflow of humanitarian aid from Hungary to neighbouring Ukrainian territories, including large shipments of fuel during the very first days of the war. Even though this aid is not formally associated with the war, Hungary’s role in ensuring a steady supply of energy for Ukraine has been of strategic significance in the conflict. At the time, Hungary was the first of Ukraine’s neighbours to reverse the flow of Russian gas to Ukraine through the pipes connecting the two countries, and this remains the main direction of Ukraine’s gas import today.

It is important to realize that Subcarpathia—or the Transcarpathian Territory as the Ukrainians call it—has not been affected by military operations to date, and this is an extraordinary advantage that both Hungary and Ukraine would be well-advised to preserve. Some sources in Poland have denigrated this perspective, arguing that this is important for Hungary mostly on account of the approximately 150,000 Hungarian national minorities living in one block in this region. I do not wish to comment on the ethical implications of these denigrating claims. Yes, we do regard the life and well-being of all these Hungarian minorities, along with more than one million Ukrainians living in the region, as a top priority. Those feeling morally justified in condemning Hungary for this ought to consider the strategic significance of ensuring the security of aid to Ukraine through this channel, if nothing else. It is a vital interest of Europe as a whole to keep at least one path open for the safe delivery of assistance to Ukraine.

If for no other reason, this explains why Hungary must refrain from any statement or measure that could be interpreted by Russia as an excuse for military retaliation against Hungarians on either side of the Ukrainian border. Let me add that Hungary would not be able to provoke Russia in any way other than rhetorically. This is because the left-liberal governments between 2002 and 2010 not only plunged the economy into severe crisis, but ‘made sure’ to completely undermine Hungary’s military and defence industry. Even though the new government managed to stand the economy back on its feet and embarked on the strategic development of the country’s defence capabilities in the last third of the 2010s, the Russian attack on Ukraine has found Hungary roughly halfway through in this process.

Under the circumstances, Hungary would not be able to assist Ukraine with any meaningful supply of weapons even if it wanted to, without jeopardizing its ability to fulfil its overriding responsibilities as a NATO member. As for the route of weapon deliveries from the West to Ukraine, these have stayed clear of Hungarian territory. In this way, Hungary’s symbolic contribution of weapons would present the risk of a massive sacrifice for both Hungarians and Ukrainians, while delivering virtually no practically appreciable results. And a sacrifice without results is typically something no country should undertake in times of war.

What we need to make our friends in Poland realize is that objective circumstances limit Hungary’s support for Ukraine mostly to a proactive policy of peace, in addition to the aforementioned humanitarian aid. I believe, however, that it would be a mistake to underestimate the strategic potential inherent in this form of support. Ukraine, Poland, and Hungary share a crucial interest in grabbing the first opportunity of peace to bring a halt to the fighting in Ukraine. Each day of war, each human casualty, each piece of infrastructure destroyed will only weaken Ukraine’s chances to rebuild once the war is over. This lends enormous strategic significance to the ability to forge peace.

Hungary therefore endeavours to stick to its role as a peace-keeper, and to avail itself of every opportunity to exploit this ability for the benefit of Ukraine, Central Europe, the Western alliance, and the whole world. In this respect, Hungary’s foreign policy is indeed different from that of Poland, which is focused on enabling Ukraine to negotiate peace with Russia from the best possible military position. It is important to realize, however, that these two roles, albeit different, are not at all incompatible. This is precisely why only harm can come from narratives pitting one attitude against the other. What makes a group of countries an alliance is not that all its members act in the same way, but that each does what it can do best to further a common goal.

But is this goal really something we share, one might ask, when Hungary’s prime minister says in an interview that Poland seeks to push the frontier of the Western world eastward, while Hungary simply wants to see an independent, sovereign state between it and Russia? Those raising this question should note that this distinction involves two kinds of arguments, each of which entails the very same consequence in practice. One would have to be blind not to see that Ukraine wants to be part of the Western world, and that it will sooner or later achieve this goal if it survives as a sovereign state.

In other words, there is nothing in the prime minister’s statement that would resemble what some have tried to read into it, namely that one of the two arguments is right, and the other is wrong. While it is true that the position of Poland diverges from that of Hungary in several ways, it is also a fact that both are aimed at enabling Ukraine to live in peace and to decide on its own destiny freely. This common goal should be obvious, if from nothing else, then from the fact that both Poland and Hungary, along with the other member states in Central Europe, have championed the cause of Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.

As the vision of Ukraine’s membership clearly shows, Hungary’s policy straddles two distinct temporal dimensions. One concerns aid and peace here and now, during the war. The other dimension is the world to come when the war is over— a world of which Ukraine will be a part as a member of the EU. This vision is at once one of a strong Europe and of a strong Central Europe within it.

This vision is something we have in common. Nevertheless, there is a discrepancy between the Hungarian approach and the Polish one in terms of what we think will be most conducive to a stronger Europe: a total break with dependence on Russian energy, as our friends in Poland suggest, or cracking Russia’s monopoly on energy export to our countries (and thus stopping paying for extra profits) which is the cornerstone of Hungary’s strategy.

The choice between Russian and other resources is a prerequisite for a fairly priced energy supply for several national economies in Europe, including Hungary. As such, it forms a precondition for each country to stand its ground amid international competition. Consequently, we believe that by implementing a wholesale ban on Russian energy imports, Europe would cause more harm to itself than to Russia. And causing a greater damage to ourselves than to the enemy, particularly in times of war, is the most ill-advised thing we could do.

I want to make this clear: the only sanction Hungary opposes is the total exclusion of Russian imports from Europe’s energy market. However, Hungary is and will be fully supportive of any solution aimed at eliminating Russia’s energy monopoly.

The war will end one day—hopefully sooner rather than later—but history will not stop in its tracks, and the world will remain beset by uncertainty. Fierce competition will continue, presenting us with ever new security challenges. Therefore we must endure the war next door and bear our share of its burden while preventing the robust economic and technological development of recent years from slowing down or halting altogether. Our political objective should be focused on the kind of post-war peace that will result in a very strong, rapidly growing, and globally competitive Central Europe, with Ukraine in it.

Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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