What to do about Hungary’s cozy relationship with Moscow

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When is an ally not really an ally? If this was only about NATO members who have flouted democracy, the list would be too numerous to address. But this is about Allies who have gone many steps further to embracing the one person for whom targeting NATO is an everyday occurrence. Putin’s interference in elections, likely involvement in suspicious deaths of opponents, cyber meddling, use of energy as a weapon, disregard of sovereign borders and shows of force inches from the border of NATO members has made it patently clear to most Allies that Russia is a threat. Similarly, the Alliance understands that China is increasingly encroaching on everything from intellectual property to cyber hacking and obstructing sea lanes of commerce where many Allies ply their trade.

Over the course of NATO’s history, some members have had dubious excuses for democracies, military juntas running their governments and ties to the Soviet Union. Still other members had disturbingly close relationships with the Soviets leading other Allies to conclude they could not be trusted with NATO’s secrets.

{mosads}But the one constant, the one litmus test for Allies has always been based upon the commitment of all members to agree on common threats, to irrevocably identify friend from foe. This essential element has made the Alliance continuously relevant for its 70 years of existence and why it is a club that still has so many eager to join. But Hungary, if Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is to be believed, has decided not to take sides but rather be a neutral observer.

Over the past few years, some of America’s closest Allies have had to endure name calling, distrust and attacks from the United States and domestically in Europe, like never before.  The clarion call of shared democratic values and ideals that intrinsically bind Europe and North America together, that no single action or country has been able to divide, has frayed along the edges. We have watched as some members of this vaunted Alliance have drifted back to the ugliness of the last century where ultra-nationalist fervor, blatant intolerance and military encroachment led to tragedy on a global scale.

In enlarging the Alliance, NATO took a substantial risk. No not the risk that so many today point to when referring to Putin’s anger, Putin’s contempt for the West would have been manifested in any event even without enlargement. The risk NATO took was in bringing in new democracies with no history of democracy. But this calculated risk was taken because these countries were desperate to join the community of democratic nations.

Democracy is not automatic, it doesn’t just take after a few years or even decades. It requires substantial investment, nurturing and a commitment to these ideals through good times and bad. Many of NATO’s newest members are great success stories, but others like Hungary have taken a different path.

Under the guise of the migrant crisis, Orban enacted legislation that reeks of 1936. He has entered into no-bid nuclear reactor agreements with favorable financing that create decades-long dependencies on Russia. He has talked of new intelligence sharing arrangements with Moscow. One cannot help but ask, at what price and how does this affect Hungary’s role in NATO. Perhaps an equally important question is how to put the brakes on Orban’s slide eastward and bring Hungary back to where it really belongs.

When NATO enlarged there were set rules that all new members had to be full members. That meant no accommodations or special arrangements like those made for France which was not part of the integrated military command structure from 1966 to 2009.  But France always understood what it meant to be a member of the Alliance and the stark difference between friend and foe. The question is what happens when there is a new reality where all Allies do not share that threat perception or accept the concept of a common threat. What is NATO supposed to do when Orban talks of neutrality, of not wanting to take sides that might put him at odds with Putin.

{mossecondads}Might it be time for NATO to reexamine which ally gets to sit at what table and when? Should members be excluded from discussions when their ability or desire to keep a secret from Russia is in doubt? This latter point may well be the most significant. In 2019, unlike in the last century, sins of omission, lack of effective operational security in the age of hacking, can have the same deleterious effect as sins of commission, willfully sharing secrets with the wrong party.  

NATO should begin this conversation by accounting for and reexamining operational security arrangements across the entire Alliance and in each member’s national security apparatus to determine what might pose a threat and put all of its members at risk. The one sure thing that everyone should be able to agree upon is that the words NATO and neutral should never be uttered as part of the same sentence.

Debra Cagan worked as a career State Department diplomat and Defense Department official from the Reagan to Trump administrations, including serving as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Coalition, Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Disaster Relief; senior director of European, Russian and Eurasian security issues; special adviser for Strategic and Nuclear Policy for Europe; senior adviser to U.S. and NATO military officials. Cagan also led negotiations for a highly enriched uranium agreement with Russia and headed coalition affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan.

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