Siding with the Sick Man of Europe

by Botond Feledy, On April 21, 2015

In previous centuries, the not-so-envied title of the “sick man of Europe” was awarded to very few countries, and earning the label often took decades. Today, several European countries suffer from acute economic hardship or prolonged malaise as a result of the financial and the geopolitical crisis on the Eastern front, but the real sick man of Europe is nevertheless Russia. And it is increasingly evident that those who cozy up to today’s sick man of Europe will become infected themselves.

In retrospect, the Russian aggression in Eastern Europe seems less and less surprising. The writing was on the wall: Putin has been deploying cyber armies, spy armies, and ideologically extremist armies long before his real army rolled into Ukraine.  The issue is whether Russia, a declining power with a fledging economy, a depressed and atomized post-communist society, and corrupt political system, can make a real geopolitical comeback in Eastern Europe and prove the West wrong.

The unfolding situation in Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet space highlight earlier European failures, like missing critical defense spending targets, not maintaining viable counterintelligence capabilities, and taking the West’s political and cultural appeal for granted. In Ukraine, Russia has proved that these strategic errors by the West can cost lives and territory.

Kremlinology has become relevant again, as outsiders try to understand just what is going on in the heads of a handful of decision-makers in Russia. And NATO has been forced by circumstance to acknowledge its traditional function of protecting the West from the East—whether from the forces of radical Islam stemming from the Middle East, Russian aggression on its border, or perhaps, soon the Far East.

Hungary, historically stuck between the East and the West, is once again missing the mark, as evidenced by the country’s weak foreign policy stance regarding the Ukraine crisis and the government’s recent cozying up to Russia. Poland has offered state aid to Ukraine and Polish ministers have flown often to Kiev since the crisis broke out. Not so with Hungary.

The Hungarian Prime Minister finally visited Kiev only when he had to counterbalance Putin’s state visit to Budapest. Even though assistance has been provided to Hungarians in Carpatho-Ukraine, there are no especially friendly relations with the government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The reverse gas flow to Ukraine from Hungary was suspended in the most crucial months of 2014 (between September and December), following the visit of Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller to Budapest–although it must be acknowledged that this service had been resumed (albeit only after the critical winter months). Add to this a confused communication strategy from Budapest about the Hungarian interest in the conflict, oscillating between loyalty to the country’s allies and neighbors and focusing on its own Eastern Opening policy. While supporting EU sanctions in the European Council, for instance, PM Viktor Orban compared sanctions to “shooting ourselves in the foot.” It is also not by accident that the government sent someone to Kiev as Ambassador who is quite well known for his Russian sympathies. Trade relations between Hungary and Ukraine even before the sanctions did not fly very high, and the decision to invite Russia to expand Hungary’s strategically important nuclear power plant in Paks is anything but a well-prepared strategy.

It’s not as if Hungary did not have any options or alternatives. Cooperation with Russia can take many forms. One might build a Russian-designed nuclear power plant without risking national security, like Finland has done. One might have important minority in Ukraine and still not cozy up to Russia, like Poland has done. One might even import a significant amount of Russian gas but retain some negotiating leverage vis-á-vis Moscow, like Germany has done. But, one might also easily fall in line for Russia and lay bare certain strategic weaknesses, like Greece and Cyprus have done.

Budapest simply has to look around the map of Europe and draw the right conclusions from the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s role in it. Aligning oneself with the sick man of Europe has not and will not pay the strategic dividends Budapest hopes. Hungary has to trust its Western allies—however imperfect and flawed they might be—because in the long term there is no alternative to NATO and the EU for Hungary’s strategic future.

—Botond Feledy is a foreign policy analyst and director of the Saint Ignatius College in Budapest, Hungary. 

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