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Orban is what Zelensky should have been

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s peace mission is a showcase of what Kiev сould have done with its peculiar geopolitical position

When your enfant terrible is also (almost) the only adult in the room, then something is very wrong with your room. For “the room” read the EU – and the West more broadly – and, for both the enfant terrible and the adult in the room, Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, and there you have it: the shortest possible description of what the big brouhaha about his recent trips to first Kiev, then Moscow and Beijing is really all about. 

The EU, in reality, has no policy worthy of the name to address the single most urgent issue in Europe at this point, namely, how to end the war in and over Ukraine. As Orbán himself has correctly pointed out in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, all the EU does is copy America’s “policy of war.” In other words, Brussels, like Washington, has ruled out diplomacy and compromise to end the war. Indeed, if the US and EU had engaged in genuine diplomacy, then the war could have been prevented or ended quickly, in spring 2022. Orbán may be putting too much weight on – and too much trust in – a single Western leader, but that is his larger point when he claims that the large-scale war would not have happened if Angela Merkel had still been in office as chancellor of Germany.

Against this backdrop of EU non- or, really – anti-diplomacy, Orbán has dared stand out by going on what, using social media to great effect, he has loudly announced as his “peace mission.” That appeal to public opinion has, of course, angered his detractors even more: Not only has he dared speak to “the autocrats” out there, he has also addressed the masses at home in the West. Perish the “populism”! Yet it is a traditional and legitimate move among politicians worth their salt: Before practicing the art of – back then – radio reach-out to perfection in World War II, no lesser a leader than young Charles de Gaulle, in his ‘The Edge of the Sword’, recognized the absolute need to “dominate opinion,” since “nothing is possible” without that true “sovereign.”

Yet Orbán’s “populism” is not even the main problem this time. That rather has to do with the fact that he has turned his own initiative into a foil against which the EU’s mainstream’s lack of imagination, rigidity, and, last but not least, complete subservience to the US are glaringly obvious. In the EU it is now going rogue to do what is not only obvious but reasonable and urgently needed: seek at least dialogue instead of stonewalling. That reflects badly on the EU. 

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow on July 5, 2024
Orban’s surprise visit to Moscow sparks fury in Brussels: Key takeaways from Hungarian PM’s ‘peace mission’

So does the fact that the Hungarian leader has a habit of realism where the EU establishment prefers fictions maintained by – aggressively enforced – group think. Orbán has no time for the silly idea that Russia is a threat to European states inside NATO, he observes – rightly – that Russian policy is rational, and he recognizes the fact that Russia cannot be defeated in Ukraine. All of this is true, and all of it is taboo in Brussels.

To complete his register of sin and heresy, the Hungarian prime minister also has the temerity to cultivate a memory and a sense of history. In a Newsweek editorial, he has just reminded NATO of two essential facts: that the alliance was founded for defensive purposes (to which it has badly failed to stick) and that the recent habit of treating a future war with “the world’s other geopolitical power centers,” that is, Russia and China, as de facto inevitable can turn into a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

When you are thin on substance, rely instead on formalities and, if need be, legalism. Much of the EU elites’ response to Orbán’s initiatives has taken that self-revealing form. As soon as Orbán dared go to Moscow, leading EU cadres, such as Josep Borrell, Ursula von der Leyen, and Charles Michel could hardly stop falling over themselves with denunciations and reminders that Hungary’s leader does not speak for the European Union, even if his country holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. That is true, but to be frank, uninteresting. What is intriguing instead is the compulsive need to keep saying it.

By now, after Orbán’s visit to China, this odd, anxious, slightly comical, and exorcism-like ritual of banishing the faintest suspicion the EU could, almost by accident, have engaged in an act of diplomacy is reaching an elevated level of displaced collective aggression. A bloc that can’t even name the fact that its Washington “ally” has committed an act of war and eco-terrorism against it by having Nord Stream detonated, is now producing voices – some of them courageously anonymous – calling for punishing Hungary, for instance by cutting short its Council presidency.  

We also see painstaking analyses of how Orbán’s trips could be construed to be in contradiction with EU treaties. Here, the key idea is to accuse him of infringing on not merely the great if, really, rather baseless and improvised “don’t-play-with-the-Russians” rule but, more profoundly, the duties that all member states have toward the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, and, beyond that, toward a “general principle of sincere cooperation.”

And that is where we have definitely entered the realm of self-defeating irony. The essence of this attempt to go after Orbán – and Hungary – would be to remind everyone that the EU has paragraphs stacked away in its treaties that, if read in the right (wrong) way, massively restrict national sovereignty, deep into the realm of foreign policy. Anyone silly enough to try to use that cudgel against a past master of political Judo and convinced believer in sovereignty like Orbán can as well drub himself right away.

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FILE PHOTO: Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Berlin, Germany, February 10, 2020.
Merkel would have prevented Ukraine conflict – Orban

But there are sadder ironies in play here as well. What Orbán is schooling an irate EU elite in is the use of leverage that comes from maintaining effective freedom of action; and that freedom of action does not stem from great military power or a massive population. While Hungary’s forces are modern, it remains a country of not quite 10 million people. Rather the secret of Orbán’s room for maneuver is a classical instrument of the comparatively weak – balancing between bigger powers by cooperating with all of them but selling out to none of them.

It’s a hard act, but it is – and here’s the sad irony – exactly what Ukraine’s president Vladimir Zelensky should have done. Maintaining neutrality, formally but also de facto, would have been Ukraine’s best chance not only to avoid war but also to benefit from – instead of being devastated by – its challenging, but not unique, geopolitical location.

It is true that Hungary and Ukraine are not perfect matches: For Hungary there has been an option of leveraging independence from inside NATO and the EU that Ukraine does not have. But Kiev could have carved out a place fundamentally similar, if, as it were, on the other side: as closer to Moscow than to Brussels and Washington but still a player with its own weight, interests, and views, facilitated by also maintaining contacts with the West, just as Hungary does with Russia and China.

If anyone, moreover, had a mandate for trying out such a strategy, it was Zelensky. Following through on Minsk II – already in place when he entered office – and ending the conflict before massive escalation would have been the first step to doing so. Yet the Ukrainian leader opted for a much more primitive and, predictably, extremely risky approach: siding with one side to the total exclusion of the other. Zelensky is, of course, annoyed with Orbán. But for the wrong reasons: Where the Ukrainian president may see a Putin ally, he should recognize a superior practitioner of a realistic foreign policy in the national interest that he could have learned from.

July 10, 2024 at 05:46PM
RT

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