Analysis & Opinions

U.S. Engagement with Hungary: Reshaping NATO’s Collective Alliance

| Feb. 13, 2024

This piece was written to accompany the event, “Europe's Position in a Multipower and Polarized World,” featuring Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade for Hungary and Arancha González, Former Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation on February 9th, 2024 at the Harvard Kennedy School.

 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 disrupted the European security landscape and forced political leaders to reconsider their strategic relationships. Galvanized by Russia’s aggression, NATO is at its strongest point in the 21st century; Hungary remains Russia’s closest ally within the Alliance, however, and is often a thorn in its side.

 

Hungary’s relationship with Russia and leveraging of NATO membership ratifications has been counterproductive in an alliance reliant upon 31 members making decisions collectively. Hungary is attempting to take advantage of NATO’s political-military interface to promote its power status within the Alliance. 

 

Despite the negative impacts on the Alliance and collaboration with Russia, the U.S. needs to show leadership by increasing military cooperation with Hungary. Alienating Hungary will only drive Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, closer to Russia. Now is an opportunity to reshape NATO as a collective security alliance and further integrating Hungary will cultivate that. 

 

Democratic Backsliding Strains Relations 

Over the past decade, Hungary has experienced broad democratic backsliding, including attacks on the judiciary and rule of law, that have strained their bilateral relationship with the U.S. and multilateral relationships within NATO and the European Union (EU). Hungary has consolidated as an electoral autocracy, making the NATO member a complicated ally. 

 

The Hungarian government exerts widespread control over Hungarian institutions, resulting in declining ties with the EU. Their control over electoral, media, and civil systems is tightly consolidated, preventing full political participation and nullifying successful opposition. Members of the European Parliament explicitly defined Hungary as a regime of electoral autocracy and condemned the country for undermining values contrary to the mission of the EU. 

 

In December 2022, the European Council suspended over 6 billion euros of funds for Hungary due to repeated breaches of rule of law. In response, Minister Szijjártó stated a condition of approving Finland’s accession to NATO is a guarantee the frozen funds will be transferred to Hungary. Linking EU punishment of Hungary’s democratic backsliding to NATO accession has further eroded the Alliance’s trust. 

 

After coming to power, Mr. Orbán and his political party, Fidesz, quickly embraced nationalist rhetoric to consolidate political power and appeal to populist sentiments. A frequently used narrative invokes the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, a postwar treaty which resulted in a loss of  two-thirds of Hungary's historic territory and displaced over 3 million ethnic Hungarians to European territories including modern-day Romania, Slovakia, and Ukraine. 

 

Mr. Orbán has repeatedly asserted the need to protect ethnic Hungarians outside of Hungary’s borders - rhetoric similar to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for the invasion of Ukraine. In 2017, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law to “de-Russify” Ukrainian education but the law also targeted Hungarian-language efforts. In retaliation, the Hungarian government blocked ministerial-level meetings between NATO and Ukraine as Ukraine actively sought NATO membership.

 

“The antidote to respond to this war was unity … stay united to let our neighbor know this is not what we would tolerate…Unity is costly to build and even harder to maintain…When you want to preserve unity, anyone can use this moment to ask for something else.”

- Arancha González, Former Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation

 

Increasing Ties with Russia

An increasing concern for both the U.S. and NATO are Hungary’s deepening political and economic ties with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. Through increased cooperation, including contracts with the Russian-owned energy corporation Gazprom and a freshly inked deal on the Paks 2 nuclear plant project, Hungary has entered into an entrenched, interdependent relationship with Russia. As international concern mounted in response, Mr. Orbán explicitly stated he would not be “doing away with our relationship with Russia because that would be contrary to our national interests.” 

 

Hungary’s relationship with Russia has had direct consequences on global efforts to punish Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. Several months into the war, Hungary blocked proposed EU sanctions against Russia. Subsequently, officials in Hungary openly declared their intention to defy international law by refusing to detain President Putin if he entered Hungary, despite the International Criminal Court issuing a warrant for his arrest in March 2023 for offenses committed during the invasion.

 

By pursuing partnerships with both Russia and NATO, Hungary can demand greater strategic relevance and influence within the Alliance. Mr. Orbán promotes Hungary’s newfound position within NATO as a means of leverage and power in the Alliance’s political and military committees, as well as through policy and defense planning processes. As Hungary’s governing power is unlikely to change in the near future, the U.S. must find a way to work with the current reality of Hungary’s dual posturing. 

 

A Divergent Member of NATO

For over 20 years, Hungary has been a contributing member of NATO. Hungary, along with Poland and the Czech Republic, became the first former Warsaw Pact members to join the Alliance on March 12, 1999. Hungary joined the United States in sending troops to Afghanistan during the global war on terror and has participated in several multilateral operations since, including a demonstrated deep commitment to NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR). Hungary is also one of eleven NATO members that have met the 2% defense spending target

 

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hungary has supported operational planning for a conventional engagement with Russia. This included signing on to regional plans in defense of the Alliance at the NATO Summit in Vilnius in July 2023. NATO leadership has reiterated the Alliance, including Hungary, would declare Article V if Russia attacked - which stipulates collective defense where an attack against one member is considered an attack against the entire block. 

 

“... whether we see Russia as a threat to NATO or not…I don't think Russia will waste an attack against A NATO member state. Why? Because of Article 5…NATO is much stronger than Russia, militarily speaking. So if pragmatism and logic still exist, then I should say that I don't see this [as a] threat because it would be very illogical.” 

- Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade for Hungary

 

As NATO expands across the Nordic region, however, Hungary has positioned itself as an adversarial voice in the Alliance. It took Hungary 265 days to approve Finland’s bid while the rest of the Alliance, with the exception of Turkey, took less than 90 days for approval. Repeated delays in the ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession have seriously impacted the Alliance, as it stalls potential cooperation and policy development. 

 

By stalling NATO expansion, Hungary prioritized its political objectives over broader Alliance security goals. Through their unwillingness to reach consensus as part of NATO’s unanimous consensus structure, Hungary has gained an outsized role in the future of the Alliance – in direct contrast to their current operational contributions. 

 

A Way Forward for the U.S. 

The U.S. needs to lead enhanced military integration with Hungary within the Alliance to bolster European security.  In response to Mr. Orbán’s obstruction of support for Ukraine, some have argued to sideline Hungary from multilateral institutions - including exploring mechanisms to reform EU voting rules. The political complexities of a security-based consensus organization, however, make this proposition nearly impossible within NATO. NATO has no mechanism to cast out Hungary but, furthermore, sidelining Hungary in NATO has the potential to diminish force readiness and stymie operations at a critical juncture. 

 

Hungary offers the U.S. a critical geographic location for operations and training in a key area of strategic significance. In an Article V engagement with an ever-expansionist Russia, Hungary will play a critical role - thus closer operational integration is of mutual benefit to the Alliance and Hungary. Furthermore, for Hungary’s benefit, closer military ties affords the opportunity to conduct rapid military modernization. 

 

First, the U.S. should propose Hungary as a training location to capitalize on critical supply routes and integrate Hungary operationally. A training location in Hungary would help ensure NATO has forces within a rapid response distance to the Focşani Gate in Romania - a critical yet vulnerable strip of terrain connecting Romania to Ukraine and Moldova. Hungary becomes even more critical in an Article V engagement if Russia can come away with a victory in Ukraine. A winning Russia will have lost a significant volume of hardware in the conflict, and their forces will likely look strikingly different, but they will have mastered force regeneration and represent an even greater threat than today. 

 

Second, the U.S. should create bilateral training with the Hungarians analogous to the Black Sea Rotational Force which sent U.S. Marines to Romania from 2010 - 2018. Similar bilateral exercises on large-scale combat operations, peacekeeping, communications, logistics, and decision-making would pull Hungary closer to Western military standards. A permanent basing framework of U.S. forces would not only be helpful for Marines to train in NATO’s Eastern Flank, but would provide an additional deterrent to Russian expansionism and act as a staging location in crisis. 

 

Finally, the U.S. should advocate to increase Hungary’s standing presence in multilateral battle groups. As of 2022, Hungary had the smallest number of NATO allied troops of any nation in the Eastern Flank and the only allied troops based in Hungary were Croatian and Italian, even though U.S. troops are indeed assigned as a contributing nation with a nonpermanent footprint. In addition, Hungarian troops do not make up any multinational battle groups in other Eastern Flank nations. This is in stark contrast to allied troops stationed in countries throughout the Eastern Flank: the 100,000 U.S. troops deployed to Europe had a presence in every country within the Eastern flank except Hungary. 

 

Conclusion

In late February, Hungary has a chance to come into step with the Alliance by voting for Sweden’s accession to NATO. If the U.S. can engage with Hungary, it ultimately enhances NATO's collective strength and cohesion - not solely for the support of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, but for the enhancement of European security in the coming decades. Furthermore, a closer partnership affords the U.S. the chance to ramp up pressure on democratic changes needed for Hungary to align with EU values. To most effectively counter Russia’s expansionist ambitions, the U.S. must mitigate Mr. Orbán’s growing relationship with Russia by integrating Hungary more closely into NATO operations.

 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Jones, Grace and Olivia Leiwant.“U.S. Engagement with Hungary: Reshaping NATO’s Collective Alliance .” , February 13, 2024.

The Authors