Russian President Vladimir Putin has traveled little in recent years, but there are two things he always has time for: judo and Hungary. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban played host to Putin in Budapest on Aug. 28 for the opening of the 2017 World Judo Championships. This is Putin's second trip to Hungary this year. The two leaders held a bilateral meeting but did not schedule a news conference — a sign they're looking to shy away from more difficult questions. Instead, their talks were summarized for journalists by the Hungarian minister of foreign affairs, who said the pair discussed cooperation on energy projects. Putin may be known for his love of judo, but it's clear he came to Budapest to build a relationship with Hungary that will advance Russian interests, only one of which is energy.
Still, energy infrastructure is a powerful political tool for Russia. While nuclear energy is struggling in other parts of the world, Russia is working to export its nuclear reactor technology. The Hungarian foreign minister told reporters that a project to add two reactors to the Paks nuclear power plant, which gained European Commission approval in March, will begin in January 2018. The general contractor for the project will be Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, meaning the project will be primarily funded by the Russian state. Putin also said that Russia is working with Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and Turkey on a gas pipeline. In Hungary, Russia is implementing a tried-and-true strategy: Buy infrastructure in neighboring countries, own and operate it through state-run companies and secure a foothold there for years to come.
Hungary is one of the countries Russia traditionally prods when trying to exploit divisions among Western powers, and vice versa. Unlike other Eastern European countries such as the Baltic states or Poland, Hungary maintains excellent relations with Russia. Whereas Poland, another EU country facing isolation from the bloc, will continue to remain hostile to Russian advances, Russia can offer Hungary an alternative relationship. Hungary is accustomed to reaching out to Russia when it faces problems in the European Union. Budapest currently faces alienation and a potential loss of funds from its EU brethren over its refusal to participate in a scheme to redistribute asylum seekers across the Continent. Far-right nationalism and Euroskepticism have flourished there.
By enticing Budapest with the promise of lucrative investment deals, Moscow has previously been able to woo its neighbor into objecting to EU sanctions against Russia. Through investment in the country's energy infrastructure now, Russia is hoping to find a friend and ally who can advocate for it and exacerbate discord within the European Union.