Insight: What Will Hungary Do if Russia Attacks Ukraine?

  • 16 Feb 2022 4:23 PM
  • Hungary Today
Insight: What Will Hungary Do if Russia Attacks Ukraine?
Central European think-tank, Visegrad Insight, asked the question: ‘what would happen if Russia were to attack Ukraine?’. In a collection of reports, they look at the possible reactions of nine Central and Eastern European countries, including Hungary. According to the study, Hungary would not provide armed assistance to Ukraine, but Budapest would not veto any sanctions against Russia either.

In the event of a Russian attack, the Hungarian minority living in Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region would have to face the direct consequences of war, according to a recent study by Central European think-tank, Visegrad Insight.

Many ethnic Hungarians serve in Ukraine’s armed forces as professional or contract soldiers, particularly in the elite 128th Mountain Assault Brigade located in Munkács (Mukachevo).

Should a major escalation occur, this unit would surely see combat, inevitably suffering casualties, potentially including ethnic Hungarians, András Rácz, research fellow of Hungary’s University of Public Service, writes.

Besides, if Ukraine were forced to launch another wave of mobilization and/or conscription, it would most certainly affect the ethnic Hungarian citizens of Ukraine.

Hungary’s relations with Russia

The study outlines the concept of the so-called Eastern Opening, which can be seen as the cornerstone of contemporary Hungarian foreign policy.

The initiative started in the early 2010s by the Orbán government, implying that Hungary needs to intensify its relations with Eastern countries in order to counterbalance economic dependence on the West.

As a result, Hungary has developed close economic ties with Russia to the point some say, that, András Rácz writes, when there is a forced choice between Russia and Ukraine, Hungary often favors the interests of Moscow, as long as the issue is not an EU or NATO one, because in these cases, Hungary is almost always compliant with allied interests.

There are several reasons why Budapest often tends to favor Moscow’s interests. One of the most important is that Russia is Hungary’s key supplier of natural gas; a new, 15-year-long gas contract was signed in late 2021.

Furthermore, back in 2014, the Hungarian government contracted Rosatom to build two new nuclear reactors in Paks. This is by far the largest and most important project in Hungary-Russia relations.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defense has just confirmed to liberal news site that it has an evacuation plan for ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine if the Russia-Ukraine conflict were to escalate further.

There is also a chance for small-scale military draft evasion of those who want to avoid conscription, though a more likely destination of draft-dodgers is Poland.

 If a major war starts, the Hungarian government should expect thousands, possibly tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees to arrive in Hungary.

Not all of these asylum-seekers would be from Transcarpathia where the Hungarian minority lives, but also from other parts of the country, mostly from where the guest workers are. 

Once the war breaks out, these people are unlikely to return home, and will try to bring over their families, too.

Hungary’s relations with Ukraine

According to the study, one of the most important issues of the Hungarian-Ukrainian bilateral relations is the situation of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine.

The current restrictive minority policies of Ukraine, particularly the language and education laws, have been heavily criticized by Hungary for years now.

As initial negotiations did not bring any results, Budapest changed its approach in 2018 and started to employ a coercive strategy vis-à-vis Kyiv.

Hungary keeps blocking high-level contacts of Ukraine with NATO and the EU, and thereby intends to put pressure on the Ukrainian government.

At the same time, the study points out that this policy clearly has serious limitations, as Budapest cannot escalate with Kyiv indefinitely without getting into conflict with its EU and NATO allies, a price the Hungarian government does not want to pay.

Hungary would also be seriously affected by a fallout over the gas pipelines from Ukraine.

Although the country has not been buying natural gas directly from Ukraine since 2021, a significant amount of Ukrainian gas via Slovakia connects the Baumgarten gas hub in Austria from where Hungary is importing gas from the West. If this pipeline would get blocked or damaged, it would be a significant loss for Hungary.

Despite these arguably serious consequences, it is certain that Hungary is not going to provide any lethal military aid to Ukraine. The maximum likely military-related contribution of Hungary would be to host wounded Ukrainian soldiers for medical treatment, which Budapest has already been doing since 2015.

Meanwhile, if the EU is going to adopt new sanctions against Russia, Hungary will surely criticize but not veto them. According to the study, a Hungarian veto would be particularly counter-productive, because it would take place in times of the EU rule of law debate over Hungary’s domestic policies.

As Russia is both unwilling and unable to replace the EU funds Hungary plans to receive from the EU, it is unlikely that Budapest would risk using EU money for the sake of Moscow.

Should the situation in Ukraine deteriorate significantly, this is likely to change the Hungarian position taken at the end of January that the Hungarian armed forces alone are sufficient enough to deal with the situation, and that the government is likely to reconsider its earlier decision on not hosting additional NATO forces.

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