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Orban eyes favors from Putin amid Ukraine crisis

Priyanka Shankar Brussels
January 31, 2022

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to talk gas supplies and joint nuclear projects with the Russian leader. However, the crisis on the Ukrainian border is likely to overshadow his plans.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Viktor Orban on a street in Budapest
Hungary's Viktor Orban (right) will have to balance business interests with geopolitical tensions in his talks with PutinImage: Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

Prime Minister Viktor Orban is eager to negotiate increasing gas supplies between Russia and Hungary, as well as the progress of the Russian-backed Paks nuclear power plant project in central Hungary, when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

But the crisis on the Ukrainian border is expected to rear its head and overshadow the talks. 

"Obviously, we cannot avoid talking about the security situation in Europe, where Hungary's position is completely clear. We are interested in peace," said Orban in an interview posted to his social media last week.

He added that he would discuss security negotiations with EU and NATO officials before meeting with the Russian leader.

Daniel Hegedus, visiting fellow for Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, thinks the timing of this meeting is significant.

"This is the 11th personal meeting between Putin and Orban and the timing of this one sends a symbolic message to Putin, because it shows him that not every EU nation has shunned him over the crisis in Ukraine. A similar meeting also took place after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, triggering questions if Hungary was like the Kremlin's Trojan horse in the West," he told DW.

"But with this meeting, Orban is keen to kill two birds with one stone. On one hand he is keen to maintain his country's special relationship with Russia. On the other hand, in light of the upcoming Hungarian elections, he is keen to cater to his country's energy needs and seeks to increase the volume of gas supply from the Kremlin," he added.

Nuclear expansion

Since Orban came to power in 2010, he has regularly held meetings with Putin. Negotiations over energy supplies have always been a key part of these meetings.

According to Andras Racz, senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, Orban's business policy to make his country self-sufficient in energy production also benefits the Kremlin.

The Paks Nuclear Power Plant is seen in the southern town of Paks, Hungary.
The Paks Nuclear Power Plant located along the Danube River is Hungary's sole nuclear power plantImage: Attila Volgyi/Xinhua/ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

"In 2014, Hungary signed a contract with Russia's state nuclear energy corporation, Rosatom, to expand the Paks nuclear power project in Hungary by constructing two nuclear power plants. The project is funded through a €10 billion [$11 billion] loan from Russia and is a key element in improving Russia and Hungary's business relations," he told DW. 

"Prior to this deal, Rosatom had projects all over the world and not in the EU. Signing this deal with Hungary was very important for the company because many businesses are of the view that if you're good enough for the EU, you're good enough elsewhere," he added. 

While the project has been subject to many delays, Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, told Russian state news agency Tass that Hungary hopes it "enters into the establishment phase" in the first half of 2022. 

Orban's meeting with Putin raising eyebrows

Szijjarto also said that increasing the annual gas supply would be a key part of the talks with Putin, amid soaring energy prices in Europe.

In September 2021, Hungary signed a long-term gas contract with Russia's Gazprom which ensures that 4.5 billion cubic meters of Russian gas will be supplied to Hungary via Serbia and Austria, circumventing Ukraine.

The contract angered Ukrainian officials, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba saying the deal was signed "to defy Ukraine's national interests and Ukrainian-Hungarian relations."

Moreover, Orban's meeting with Putin has raised eyebrows in Hungary against the backdrop of the tensions at the Russian-Ukrainian border. 

A map of Ukraine showing Russian troop movements

The opposition party released a statement last week calling on Orban to cancel the meeting, saying the talks "send a message that NATO and EU member states are not united in rejecting Putin's proposals."

Oleg Ignatov, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank in Brussels, said that while Orban's main trump cards are pragmatism and doing what is most beneficial for his country, he has a complicated relationship with Russia.

"I can only say that Orban got everything he needed from Russia — a very favorable gas contract. The terms of this contract are also better than those of some other buyers of Russian gas. At the same time, Hungary does not diverge from the EU's policy toward Russia," he told DW.

How will Hungary handle the Ukraine crisis?

As concerns grow over the Kremlin's actions on the Ukrainian border, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — who form the Visegrad 4 group together with Hungary — have backed NATO's military efforts to support Ukraine. But Hungary has been reluctant to show its support because of many past disagreements with Ukraine.

Ignatov said while Hungary and Ukraine have differing opinions, for example about the rights of Hungarians living in Ukraine, there is no evidence that Hungary will take a different position to the EU on European security.

Besides NATO's efforts, US and EU leaders have also been debating imposing sanctions on Russia which include trade bans and cutting energy supplies.

GMF's Hegedus said that although sanctions are on the table, Orban knows that anything he can do to defuse the crisis will also cater to his national interests.

"Eastern Europe is highly dependent on Russian gas supply and Orban knows how an invasion of Ukraine could hurt gas supplies," he said.

"Moreover, Hungary has a multilateral foreign policy. So an invasion of Ukraine would also put him in a tight spot where being a NATO and EU member he will have to balance issues between the West, and at the same time listen to the Kremlin in order to maintain their special relationship."

Edited by: Rob Mudge