Hungary, Russia, the West, and the Rest: Orbán’s Hedging Strategy
Alexander Gale examines the strategic rationale driving the Hungarian government’s foreign policy.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán perturbed his Western allies this October when he was pictured shaking hands with Russian President Vladmir Putin. Indeed, Orbán’s refusal to completely sever ties with Russia has continued to attract the ire of Hungary’s fellow NATO and EU members since the war in Ukraine erupted in February last year. Hungary’s relations with China have also raised a few eyebrows in Western diplomatic circles.
Although Hungary may now be regarded as the proverbial ‘black sheep’ of the European family, Budapest’s foreign policy is not without a certain strategic rationale. By maintaining cordial bilateral relations with Russia and China, much to the annoyance of its allies, Hungary is pursuing a ‘hedging’ strategy in which it seeks to position itself with greater autonomy as an aspirant regional middle power in an increasingly contested multipolar world. This is in contrast with most other former Eastern Bloc countries that have sought to secure their interests by unambiguously aligning themselves with the West.
Hungarian Foreign Policy: At Odds with Western Allies
Before we assess Hungary’s strategic approach, it is worth examining just how much Orbán’s foreign policy is out of step with other European and Western leaders and the reactions this has generated.
In October, Orbán was the only European leader to attend the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing where he met with Putin. Regarding the meeting, the Hungarian prime minister later commented, ‘We keep open all the communication lines to the Russians. Otherwise, there would be no chance for peace…This is a strategy. So, we are proud of it… We are the only one who is speaking on behalf and in favour of the peace which would be the interest of everybody in Europe.’
Western officials were aghast at the meeting. ‘Hungary’s leader chooses to stand with a man whose forces are responsible for crimes against humanity in Ukraine, and alone among our allies,’ said the US ambassador in Budapest David Pressman. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told the press that seeing images of the Hungarian prime minister shaking hands with Putin was ‘very, very unpleasant.’
Zoltán Kovács, the Hungarian Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Relations hit back at the criticism of Budapest’s foreign policy, saying that ‘I find a certain amusement in how these politicians flock to criticise the Hungarian government and our openly declared interest in maintaining a diplomatic relationship with Russia, while their moral superiority is a façade at best.’
Orbán’s recent meeting with Putin is not the only time that the Hungarian government has diverged from its allies. Hungary has stalled Sweden’s bid to join NATO since July 2022, halted its provision of wartime aid to Ukraine, and advocated for the removal of EU sanctions imposed on Russia.
Moreover, Budapest remains largely dependent on Moscow for energy imports and has been more hesitant to find alternative suppliers than other European countries. In October, the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom announced that it would provide greater volumes of natural gas for Hungary during the winter season.
To a lesser extent, the Hungarian government has also attracted criticism for its diplomatic and economic ties to China. For example, in 2019, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that continued business dealings with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei could jeopardise the economic relationship between the US and Hungary, as well as other European nations. Then, in April 2021, Hungary vetoed a European Union (EU) declaration denouncing China's enactment of the Hong Kong security law. This move attracted harsh criticism from other EU members. Notably, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the move ‘absolutely incomprehensible’.
Nevertheless, Orbán’s government has continued to court Beijing with far less hesitancy than many other EU member states as part of Hungary’s ‘Eastern Opening’ foreign policy. Projects like the Budapest-Belgrade railway initiative, slated for completion by 2025, come with a price tag of €2.3 billion, of which 85% is financed through loans from China. Similarly, in the last year, Hungarian factories have attracted over $10.9 billion in investments from Chinese battery manufacturers. Meanwhile, the aforementioned partnership between the Hungarian government and Huawei remains active, with the latter involved in 5G development and shared research initiatives with Hungarian partners.
Orbán’s Geostrategic Ambitions
Hungary’s foreign policy starts to make more sense within the context of Orbán’s geostrategic ambitions and worldview. The Hungarian government has not published an official foreign policy strategy for over a decade, but the prime minister’s remarks at a Christmas dinner event last year at the Széll Kálmán Foundation were republished by his political director Balázs Orbán (of no familial relation). They give a fairly comprehensive view of the prime minister’s perception of the international order and what he thinks Hungary’s place within it should be.
The view of Orbán and his supporters is that Hungary should position itself to ‘become a developed economy and attain middle power status in Central Europe.’ However, this geostrategic position is threatened by the ‘fragmentation of the international order’ and growing competition between the US and its adversaries, China, and Russia. Orbán’s concern is that the US, as the leader of the Western world, will pressure its allies to ‘decouple’ with Russia and China, thus severing the world into opposing economic blocs, reminiscent of the Cold War. As a peripheral state, such a scenario would relegate Hungary to insignificance, severely limiting its strategic autonomy.
The Hungarian government’s objectives are to prevent the subsummation of Budapest into the Western bloc, in which Hungary’s strategic autonomy would be limited by Washington and Brussels who would treat the country as a ‘subordinate peripheral state.’ In other words, the Hungarian government fears that its aspirations for relevancy as a regional middle power will be dashed if it loses sovereignty over its own foreign policy and loses the ability to forge bilateral agreements with non-Western actors without the explicit or implied permission of the US and/or the EU.
In the pursuit of these objectives, the Hungarian government has adopted a ‘hedging’ strategy. As explained by Dr Darren J Lim, states which are engaged in hedging typically send ‘signals that generate ambiguity over the extent of a state’s shared security interests with rival major powers, representing its interest in maintaining positive relations with both.’
Hungary’s hedging strategy consists of a mixture of cooperation, pushback, and ambiguity, in its dealings with the three great powers of the emerging multipolar world order: the US (and the West), China, and Russia. On the one hand, Hungary maintains its membership in NATO and the EU and acts as an integrated member of the Western world, but on the other, it maintains diplomatic and economic ties with Russia and China, much to the annoyance of Hungary’s Western allies.
As John J. Mearsheimer commented last year, the conflict in Ukraine revealed that the ‘Hungarians are deeply committed to not having to choose sides in any meaningful way on the military dimension, the economic dimension, and the ideological dimension of the conflict between the West and Russia.’ The same is also true of China. It does not advance Hungarian interests in any way to pick a side in the growing security competition between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region, and so, Orbán has ignored American pressure to economically decouple with Beijing.
Hungary’s hedging strategy has made it an outlier versus other Central and Eastern European countries which are aligned unambiguously with the West. The intentional ambiguity of Hungary’s foreign policy is intended to preserve its strategic autonomy and flexibility. Whether this strategy remains sustainable will largely depend on how much pressure Washington and/or Brussels put on Budapest to conform with their security, economic, and diplomatic directives.
Hungary does not possess the means to significantly alter the geostrategic landscape. However, its foreign policy positions are sufficient to cause a headache for NATO and the EU when either organisation wishes to present a unified front against strategic competitors like Russia and China. For example, Hungary has been a barrier to Swedish NATO ascension and is expected to resist EU membership for Ukraine, which would require the unanimous backing of all 27 member states.
Ultimately, if a pivotal moment were to arise in which Hungary was forced to choose between Western alignment versus Russia and China, it would opt for the former. The Hungarian economy is far too dependent on Western integration – with the vast majority of exports being to other EU members – for other options to be feasible. Nevertheless, a sufficient degree of uncertainty and freedom of choice persists at the regional and international levels for Hungary to maintain the current course of its foreign policy. Whether this remains the case will depend on the trajectory of great power politics and is largely out of Hungary’s control.
Alexander E. Gale is an analyst specializing in security and international relations. A graduate of the University of Exeter, he holds a Master of Arts in Applied Security and strategy and has written on defence issues for several publications including The UK Defence Journal, The National Interest, and Modern Diplomacy.
Photo by Marcelo Moreira