Viktor Orbán’s Ukraine Realism
Hungarian PM’s discourse on the war is unpalatable to Western ears — but he’s right
Yesterday I wrote about part of Viktor Orban’s long discourse in Transylvania last week; today I will write about the rest of it, which concerns foreign policy and the war in Ukraine. I am unaware of a site where the entire discourse has been translated into English; I’m relying on a version done by a trusted Hungarian friend.
Viktor Orban has been pushing for a peaceful, negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war from the beginning. He has been sharply criticized by Europeans for his relative closeness to Vladimir Putin. Yet with Russia shutting the gas off to Europe, and winter coming, Orban’s foreign-policy realism looks wiser than people have given him credit for. From his talk:
Every war can be looked at from many perspectives, but the primary aspect of every war is the fact that mothers will mourn their children and children will lose their parents. This consideration should override all others – even in the sphere of politics. For the Hungarian government, this means that our primary duty is to ensure that Hungarian parents and Hungarian children do not find themselves in such a situation. Here I can mention that there are countries that criticise us because they think that we are not sufficiently committed to the Ukrainians. But those countries are far away, and at most are providing support in terms of money or weapons; meanwhile today we Hungarians are the only ones, apart from the Ukrainians, who are dying in that war. According to our records, to date eighty-six Hungarians have lost their lives in that war. This is a completely different perspective. We Hungarians have been the only ones who have shed blood in that war, while those who criticise us have not shed any. This is why, as a neighbouring country, Hungary has the right to say that peace is the only solution that will save human lives, and the only antidote to wartime inflation and a wartime economic crisis.
How will we think about this war in the future? We will maintain our view that this is not our war. Hungary is a NATO member and our starting point is that NATO is much stronger than Russia, and so Russia will never attack NATO. The statement that Russia will not stop at Ukraine is a weak – but understandable – propaganda talking point used by Ukraine. I understand it, because their aim is to involve us, to involve as many countries as possible on their side in this war; but it lacks any basis in reality. At the same time, since we are members of NATO and we want to stay out of this war, our situation has become a delicate one. This is because NATO and the European Union have decided that, although they will not become belligerents, they will nevertheless supply arms and impose severe economic sanctions; and whether one likes it or not, this means that they are de facto – not de jure, but de facto – parties to this conflict. Now we are in the dangerous position of having to somehow help the Ukrainians while also being a de facto party to the conflict, yet at the same time ensuring that the authorities in Moscow do not see this as a situation in which we – NATO and the European Union – have become formal belligerents. This is the position on which the European Union and NATO are balancing every day, while taking on huge risks.
Notice how in this section, Orban does something which seems to be beyond the capacity of many Western leaders and thinkers: he tries to understand why the Russians invaded, while not justifying the invasion:
Since one can read a lot about the war, if I still have your attention, I would like to say a few words about how this war came about and what the reasons for it were. Of course everyone knows that Russia attacked Ukraine. That is what happened. Now let us look at the reason for that. Let us also note the problem that once you understand something, you are only a step away from accepting it. But it is very important to make a moral distinction between understanding something and accepting something. What this means in concrete terms is that it is important to understand why the Russians did what they did; but it does not follow from this that if you understand what they did, you accept what they did. The Russians have made a very clear security demand, and have even written it down in a way that is rare in diplomacy, sending it to the Americans and NATO. They have written their demand that Ukraine should never be a member of NATO, that Ukraine declares this, that NATO itself assures Russia of this, and that we undertake to never place weapons on the territory of Ukraine that could hit Russian territory. The West has rejected this offer and has refused to negotiate on it. They have said that NATO has an “open door policy”: the door is open, anyone can apply and we will decide whether or not we want to take them in. And the consequence of this refusal is that today the Russians are seeking to achieve by force of arms the security demands that they had previously sought to achieve through negotiation. I have to say that this war would never have broken out if we had been a little luckier and at this crucial hour the President of the United States of America was called Donald Trump, and if before that we had managed to persuade Angela Merkel not to leave office: if Donald Trump had been the President of the USA and Angela Merkel the Chancellor of Germany. But we were not lucky, and so now we are in this war.
Western strategy in this war is based on four pillars. It is a sensible strategy on paper, and perhaps even has numbers to back it up. The first was that Ukraine cannot win a war against Russia on its own, but it can do so with training from the Anglo-Saxons and with NATO weapons. That was the first claim. The second strategic claim was that sanctions would weaken Russia and destabilise the leadership in Moscow. The third strategic element was that – although they would also affect us – we would be able to deal with the economic consequences of the sanctions, so that they would be hurt more and we would be hurt less. And the fourth strategic consideration was that the world would line up behind us, because we were in the right.
As a result of this excellent strategy, however, today the situation is that we are sitting in a car with four flat tyres. It is absolutely clear that the war cannot be won like this. The Ukrainians will never win a war against Russia with American training and weapons. This is simply because the Russian army has asymmetric superiority.
The second fact that we must face up to is that the sanctions are not destabilising Moscow.
The third is that Europe is in trouble: economic trouble, but also political trouble, with governments falling like dominoes. Just since the outbreak of the war, the British, the Italian, the Bulgarian and the Estonian governments have fallen. And autumn is still ahead of us. The big price rise came in June, when energy prices doubled. The effects of this on people’s lives, which are creating discontent, are only just beginning to arrive, and we have already lost four governments.
And finally, the world is not only not with us, it is demonstrably not with us. Historically the Americans have had the ability to pick out what they identify as an evil empire and to call on the world to stand on the right side of history – a phrase which bothers us a little, as this is what the communists always said. This ability that the Americans used to have of getting everyone on the right side of the world and of history, and then the world obeying them, is something which has now disappeared. Most of the world is demonstrably not on that side: not the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians, South Africa, the Arab world, nor Africa. A large part of the world simply refuses to take part in this war, not because they believe that the West is on the wrong side, but because for them there is more to the world than this war, and they have their own problems that they are wrestling with and want to solve. It may well be that this war will be the one that demonstrably puts an end to that form of Western ascendancy which has been able to employ various means to create world unity against certain actors on a particular chosen issue. That era is coming to an end and, as they say in the bombastic language of politics, a multipolar world order is now knocking on our door.
Nobody in the West wants to hear that, because if it’s true, then that means that the Russians will get what they want from their Ukraine invasion, or at least profit to some degree from it. Yet, what is the alternative? We Westerners seem to think that because we are morally on the right side, that we will prevail. It’s the same kind of magical thinking that believes Orban must be wrong about migration and the mixing of civilizationally different peoples, because he sounds racist — this, despite the painful and unsolvable problems bedeviling Western cities overrun with unassimilable migrants. That magical thinking is going to come to an abrupt and painful halt this winter, when European peoples are freezing in the dark, and take to the streets to protest the governments that brought them to this mess. Orban is clearly forecasting this. If you think he’s wrong, why is he wrong?
I’m going to be living this winter in Budapest, so I’m going to go through it too. The difference is that I will be living there on my American salary from TAC, and my book earnings. I will easily be able to pay whatever astronomical prices I have to pay to keep my apartment warm. This is emphatically not the case for most Hungarians, for whom the average salary is just under $35,000 per year [CORRECTION: the actual figure is more like $12,000 net annual income — RD]. The Hungarian government has a system of state subsidies of homeowners’ energy bills, but that system will face a severe test this winter. It’s very easy for people of my income level and social class to hold high ideals about this Ukraine war when we can afford to pay the cost of Western resistance.
(Side note: I feel the same way about mass migration. I’ve mentioned here before how struck I was about two decades ago, living and working in Dallas. All the respectable middle-class and upper-class Republicans and Democrats were in favor of migration. I remember the day in 2003 I went out to Irving, a suburb, to talk to a (white) homeowner who was trying to sell his house and move. Why? Illegal immigration, and absentee landlords of rental properties in his neighborhood renting houses to large groups of Central American men. When the homeowner returned from work one day to find the SWAT team blocking off his street, because of trouble in the rental house, he decided it was time to get his family out of there. And it wasn’t just a racial thing, either. One of the angriest men on that street was a Hispanic homeowner who saw everything he had worked to provide for his family at risk because of these migrants, and the City of Irving code inspectors’ indifference. It was that experience that helped me to understand that people like me and my colleagues only experienced the benefits of mass migration (better restaurants, cheap lawn care and construction, the self-satisfaction of feeling liberal) without any of the down sides. After all, none of us were sending our kids to public schools overrun with children who speak no English. None of us had to use public hospitals filled with illegal immigrants, thereby making us have to wait long hours for care. None of us had houses with up to twenty men living in them on our streets. But boy, we sure did look down on the “racists” who resented the migrants! And you know, some of them no doubt were racist. But no more obviates their concerns for how their way of life was changing with the mass migration than Viktor Orban’s indelicate language about “mixed race” obviates the fear many Europeans have about how their way of life is changing. The modern liberal cannot absorb the truth that even morally compromised people can be right about some things, and have legitimate grievances.)
What is to be done about the war? Here is Viktor Orban, speaking truths no one in the West wants to hear:
And if we are talking about war, I can use an appropriate style to pose one important question: Chto delat? [Russian for “What is to be done?”] There is the problem that, compared to the others, Hungary’s army does not seem to be very big. There is the problem that, compared with the GDP of, say, the big European countries and the US, Hungary’s GDP also looks modest. So we may have a clear view of the situation, we may have excellent insights concerning the war, we may have a clear vision, we may have a strategic proposal; but you know that when it comes to the war all this matters very little, because the war is a prelude. It is the word of the strong that will be decisive. Hungary should not cherish the illusion that with our excellent advice we will be able to influence the events of the war and the strategy of the West. Nevertheless, in any debate I consider it a matter of honour and a moral principle that we must try to state our position and try to persuade the West to develop a new strategy to replace empty reports of victory. If your car has four flat tyres, you have to change the wheels – all four of them. A new strategy is needed; and its focus – the target in its crosshairs – should not be on winning the war, but on negotiating peace and making a good peace offer. Speaking figuratively, I have to say that now the task of the European Union is not to stand alongside either the Russians or the Ukrainians, but to stand between Russia and Ukraine. This should be the essence of a new strategy.
What will happen? The Russians are speaking an old language. So when we listen to them, it is as if we are hearing the sounds of the past: the system of gestures, the categories, the words. When I listen to Mr. Lavrov, it is like what we heard thirty or forty years ago. But this does not mean that what they are saying does not make sense: it does make sense, and it is worth taking seriously. Two days ago, for example, a Russian official said that they will push forward in Ukraine until the front line is so far advanced that from there the weapons possessed by the Ukrainians will not be able to hit Russian territory. In other words, the more that NATO countries supply modern weapons to the Ukrainians, the further forward the Russians will push the front line. This is because they are a military nation that thinks only in terms of security and is only interested in ensuring that it is not attacked from Ukrainian territory. So at the moment what we are doing is prolonging the war, whether we want to or not. This means that there will be no Russo-Ukrainian peace talks. This is an idea that we should get used to. Anyone expecting such talks will be waiting in vain. Since Russia wants security guarantees, the war can only be brought to an end with Russo-American negotiations. There will be no peace until there are Russo-American talks.
I could counter this by saying, “But look at us Europeans here”. But unfortunately, my friends, I have to say that we Europeans have squandered our chance to influence events. We squandered it after 2014, when we left the Americans out of the first Minsk agreement created during the Crimean conflict, and instead formulated a Minsk agreement with a Franco-German guarantee. Thus should have been implemented, but unfortunately we Europeans – or the Germans and the French who represented us – were unable to enforce it. This is why now the Russians do not want to negotiate with us, but with those who can force Ukraine to do what it agreed to. So the situation is like the one after the Second World War: Europe once again finds itself in a situation in which it will not have a say in its most important security issue, which will once again be decided by the Americans and the Russians.
He goes on to say that he doesn’t see any realistic chance that the Ukraine war will be resolved until after the 2024 US presidential election. He seems to be banking on a Republican administration taking power, and suing for peace. In this same section of the talk, he chides the EU for aspiring to be a global power, but being unable to get its own house in order — including controlling its own borders.
One more dose of Orbanist realism:
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Demography, migration, gender, war. The fifth set of challenges we face relates to energy and the economy. This is a complex issue. The best thing to do is to go back to square one, as one does after a dance step has gone wrong, and start again in an attempt to understand the situation. One must ask the simplest questions. Here the simplest question is this: Who benefits from this war? The answer is that the party that benefits is the one which has its own sources of energy. The Russians are doing well. We have miscalculated, thinking that if we do not buy energy from the Russians they will have less revenue. This is a mistake, because revenue is determined not only by the quantity sold, but also by the unit price. And the situation today is that the Russians are selling less energy, but they have much higher revenue. So the Russians are doing well. European Union imports from Russia have fallen by 23 per cent, but in the same period Gazprom’s revenues have doubled. The Chinese have done well. In terms of energy the Chinese used to be at the mercy of the Arabs, getting all their energy from that area of the world. But now that we are not buying from the Russians, we have effectively shifted Russian energy towards China, and China has thus eliminated its energy dependence. And, of course, large American companies are benefiting. I have compiled this list: in 2022 Exxon’s profits doubled, Chevron’s quadrupled, and those of ConocoPhillips increased sixfold. We know who is doing well economically. Who is doing badly? The European Union is doing badly, because its energy deficit – the difference between its exports and imports, or their value – has tripled, and it is now showing a shortfall of 189 billion euros.
Mind you, all of this — what you read above, and what you read yesterday — was not scripted. It was the prime minister speaking extemporaneously. You may not like the man, but he is deep, and is an extraordinary statesman. Can you imagine Joe Biden talking like this? Can you imagine any American national politician able to discourse like this off the top of his head, speaking to an audience?
Once again, some of the things Viktor Orban says land rough and hard on Western ears (Ukraine policy, migration), but he has the virtue of not talking around the problem, but trying to address it head on, without illusions.