President Vladimir Putin put on full display the Russian strategy of sowing division in the West with his visit to Hungary, one of the most vocal advocates in Europe for improving relations with Moscow. Putin and a Russian delegation landed in Budapest on Thursday for a one-day visit. Anxiety in borderland states has been growing in response to Moscow's shows of confidence and the warm signals toward Russia from the United States, the country key to containing Russian ambitions.
Hungary's loyalties have often swung between sides in the struggle between Russia and the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hungary quickly oriented its foreign policy toward the West, joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. During the latter half of the 2000s, particularly after the European Union was pounded by the 2008 financial crisis, Budapest flirted with Moscow in an attempt to attract investment. Then, in 2014, Moscow's influence took a hit when Russia was blindsided by the revolution in Ukraine, the West slapped it with sanctions, and oil prices collapsed and sent the Russian economy into a tailspin. Hungary's response was to bolster its newly pro-Western counterpart in Kiev by sending natural gas flowing back to Ukraine despite Moscow's objections. Russia even accused Hungary of supplying tanks to Ukraine.
But as the standoff between the West and Russia dragged on, Moscow identified Budapest as its chance to pick away at the West's unity. It singled out Hungary with business and political summits — three in three years. Now, with Europe increasingly divided and a new administration in Washington that appears less adversarial toward Moscow, Hungary is wasting no time deepening its ties to Russia. Moscow fully intends to seize the opportunity to exacerbate the West's divisions.
A contingent of businessmen arrived with Putin in Hungary bearing a full array of sweeteners, including possible deals on nuclear power, business investment, joint banking, energy development and railway manufacturing. As Russia sets itself up as a strong economic partner for Hungary, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — a controversial figure in mainstream European politics — called for an end to EU sanctions against Russia, deeming them ineffective and bad for Europe. He also claimed that sanctions had cost his country some $6.5 billion in investment opportunities in Russia, and he downplayed Russia as a threat to NATO. Though this line of thought is not new, the West's weakening resolve and growing Russian strength gives those arguments renewed vigor — and amplifies fears in Russia's borderlands.
Hungary's calls for better relations with Russia come amid a recent spike in fighting in eastern Ukraine. Kiev has reached out to the West for support, but its entreaties have elicited only symbolic calls for fighting to end. Moreover, though more hawkish U.S. lawmakers have pushed for increasing aid to Ukraine as the violence has escalated, President Donald Trump's administration has so far avoided taking a stance. Adding to Ukraine's fears, NATO has seemingly cooled on a contentious area of cooperation, backing away from plans to hold consultations with Ukraine over the alliance's missile defense system based in neighboring Romania. Though Kiev claims a meeting with NATO representatives was never scheduled, The Wall Street Journal reported that NATO canceled the meeting in an effort to avoid provoking Russia, which — if accurate — would mark a notable shift by the alliance.
Another key pro-Western borderland state, Georgia, is wavering on whether to attend NATO's annual summit in May. The government in Tbilisi has sent representatives to the summit for a decade. But as it grows more uncertain of the reliability of the West's support, Tbilisi has been tempering its anti-Russian sentiments and negotiating better trade ties with Russia and its own secessionist regions.
Though Russia looks to be in the driver's seat at the moment, Moscow's efforts to expand its influence and roll back Western pressure face limits. Should the violence in eastern Ukraine continue to intensify, it could reach a point that would draw the West to again rally behind Kiev. And although Hungary is making the loudest calls to end sanctions, Budapest will not act alone when it comes time in July to vote on whether to extend the penalties. Renewing the sanctions requires a unanimous vote, and Hungary does not want to be the lone country that blocks the will of all other EU states. So Moscow will focus its attempts to deepen Europe's divisions on a string of other countries — without certainty it can succeed this time around.
Much of any success Russia may experience in Europe may depend on Washington's stance. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department modified sanctions leveled on Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) during President Barack Obama's last few days in office over accusations of election-related hacking. The minor adjustment allows some U.S. companies to resume transactions with the FSB that had been banned. The Trump administration characterized the move as part of a "regular course of action." But Moscow was quick to tout the shift, labeling it an easing of sanctions heralding the start of warmer relations. Whatever Washington's intentions, these signals play directly into the Russian narrative that the countries' relationship will soon improve and shape the ways that the rest of the West will respond to Russia.