Although the administration of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has worked in recent years to improve ties, especially economic ties, with Russia, several events point to trouble in the Russo-Hungarian relationship. Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday accusing the Hungarian government of selling T-72 tanks to Ukraine via a third party. The Kremlin's decision to make the accusation raises questions about Russia's role in Central Europe as well as Hungary's foreign policy orientation.
The Russian Foreign Ministry cited an obscure far-right Hungarian website, Hidfo.net, as its source. While the veracity of the report is uncertain, there are reports that far-right organizations in the region have developed strong ties with Russia. The website published photos allegedly taken near Nyiregyhaza, Hungary, a city near the border with Ukraine, of T-72s being transported by rail. The website's report claims the photos show the same 22 tanks that official documentation from Hungary's Ministry of Defense shows were recently sold to Czech company Excalibur Army Ltd. Earlier this year, Hungary reportedly sold 58 T-72 tanks to the same company.
Hungary's Foreign Ministry promptly denied that it had sold military technology to Ukraine. According to the Hungarian government, the tanks featured in the website's photos were simply being moved from one storage facility to another. However, the statement did not address the Russian Foreign Ministry's complaint, referring only to the far-right website's report as misleading.
The idea that Hungary would surreptitiously supply Ukraine with heavy armor at the height of a European crisis with Russia raises more questions than answers. Orban has worked to distance himself from European institutions and appeal to partners in Russia, especially for investment. In fact, the same day the Russian Foreign Ministry published its statement, Orban said in an interview that the sanctions the European Union had imposed on Russia were akin to "shooting oneself in the foot."
Russia might have an incentive to demonstrate that an EU and NATO member state is supplying military equipment to Ukraine's armed forces, but the choice to highlight Hungary's role is significant. Orban is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's informal allies in Central Europe. Since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, Budapest has been very mild in its criticism of Russia, focusing on the situation of Hungarian minorities in Ukraine instead. While Poland and Romania lobbied for a greater U.S. and NATO military presence in the region, Hungary has chosen to be excluded from the initiative. Hungary's reaction to the crisis in Ukraine generated criticism within the Visegrad Group, which includes Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Moreover, Budapest's relationship with Washington has deteriorated in the past few years. U.S. officials have expressed concern about the country's foreign policy decisions and about the state of democracy in Hungary, leading Orban to decide not to visit Washington during his upcoming trip to the United States.
If Hungary did sell tanks to a third party knowing they would in turn be sold to the Ukrainian government, the sale would signal that Orban is attempting to balance his overt anti-EU, pro-Russian policies with a quiet gesture to Hungary's NATO and European partners. It also signals that while Orban's Fidesz party maintains friendly relations with Putin's Russia rhetorically, it is willing to back the pro-Western government in Kiev by supplying it with much-needed military equipment. Although Orban has long cherished the goal of diversifying Hungary's foreign partners and building stronger ties with countries such as Russia and China, the prolonged military conflict in Ukraine could have motivated him to try to mend ties with Western partners, at least in the security sphere. The Russian Foreign Ministry's statement, therefore, could be a message to Orban and his administration that the Kremlin knows Hungary is trying to play both sides and does not approve.