Donald Trump’s Russia policy must be a disappointment to Viktor Orbán

I’m beginning to feel sorry for Viktor Orbán, who tries so hard to make the right diplomatic move at the right time but, despite his best efforts, finds himself making missteps. He can expect even more such aborted diplomatic moves now that the United States has a totally unpredictable president. Orbán’s latest effort was an obvious attempt to further strengthen Russian-Hungarian relations in the conviction that this move would have President Trump’s blessing and backing. It looks as if Viktor Orbán didn’t factor in the total unpredictability of the Trump administration’s policies.

Viktor Orbán expected that his favorite candidate, Donald Trump, would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy and would keep his nose out of the affairs of other countries. Also, he would no longer demand adherence to democratic norms. Consequently, Orbán renewed his attack on non-governmental organizations operating in Hungary, especially those that receive money from George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. After all, Orbán figured, Trump dislikes the billionaire financier because he generously supported Hillary Clinton. As for diplomatic matters, Orbán was certain that he would receive Trump’s support for an even closer relationship with Putin’s Russia.

So, how did Orbán prepare for this new era of international relations? He decided to have a trial run ahead of the scheduled visit of Vladimir Putin, sending Péter Szijjártó to Moscow with a message that indicated a more openly supportive Hungarian policy toward Russia.

The many reports that appeared in both Hungarian and foreign papers on the meeting in Budapest between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán all agree that the much touted “summit” ended with a fairly meaningless press conference dealing mostly with trade relations and including a few announcements about the Russian gas supply and the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant’s extension. To learn more about what most likely transpired between Putin and Orbán behind closed doors, we should focus on the Moscow trip of the much more talkative Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on January 23 and 24. He was equally chatty after his negotiations with members of the Russian delegation in Budapest.

First of all, Szijjártó’s servility was, even by his own standards, extreme. He oozed praise and talked at length about the personal pleasure he felt at being able to meet Sergei Lavrov again. The normally dour Russian foreign minister seems to have such a close relationship with Szijjártó that in Budapest, the night before the “summit,” Lavrov was a guest at Szijjártó’s private residence.

A bit over the top

After the Lavrov-Szijjártó meeting in Moscow, Szijjártó expressed the views of the Hungarian government: “If the EU and Russia cannot agree on the conditions of a pragmatic and close cooperation, then the Union will seriously lag behind in the international economic and political competition.” He called attention to the fact that historically Central Europe has always been the victim of conflicts between East and West and therefore “it is in Hungary’s interest that the new U.S. administration and Russia establish as soon as possible a pragmatic and close cooperation based on mutual trust.” Politicians in the European Union label everybody whose ideas aren’t mainstream a “Putinist” or a “Trumpist.” But Hungary “wants to break away from such insultingly simplistic and harmful approaches and to realize that it is in Europe’s interest to normalize its relationship with Russia.” This must have been music to Sergei Lavrov’s ears.

A few days later, this time in Budapest, Szijjártó continued his efforts with members of the Putin delegation and announced Hungary’s eagerness for a close relationship between the European Union and Russia. He falsely claimed that by now “the western world” also wants to have a rapprochement with Russia. He exaggerated Hungary’s financial loss as a result of the sanctions and announced that “our position on this matter” will be guided by Hungarian interests. Both Szijjártó and Orbán, as we will soon see, act as if Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its active participation in the disturbances in Eastern Ukraine simply didn’t exist. It looks as if, in the view of the Orbán government, the “western world” should just forget about Putin’s transgression of Russia’s treaty obligations and its settling of territorial disputes by force.

In comparison to Szijjártó, Viktor Orbán was outright reticent. What was most telling was not what he said but what he didn’t. After thanking Putin “for visiting us,” he immediately moved to the “center of the talks,” which were economic issues, specifically the absolutely perfect economic relations between the two countries in recent years. It was only at this point that he gingerly moved to politics. “One of the reasons we should especially value the results of economic cooperation is that we have achieved them in a difficult international environment. We have all seen the development of strongly anti-Russian sentiment in the western half of the continent, and anti-Russian politics has become the fashion.” Fashion? Anti-Russian sentiment out of the blue? Clearly, the Orbán government would love to forget about the whole Ukrainian issue, which seems to me a highly irresponsible position considering that Ukraine is Hungary’s neighbor.

Then he moved on, somewhat obliquely, to the question of sanctions. “Hungary maintains its position that problems of a non-economic nature cannot be addressed with economic measures,” an opinion that is clearly wrong. For example, sanctions against Iran were instrumental in getting Iran to the negotiating table. Or, if these sanctions are as ineffectual as Orbán has often claimed, why is Putin so eager to have them lifted? Orbán added that “it is difficult to imagine Hungary being successful if we do not develop open, strong, and fruitful economic and trade cooperation with the major players in the global economy.”

Putin’s introductory words were equally bland, dealing mostly with economic and cultural relations between the two countries. He spent only one sentence on territories in which Russia has a military presence. He ended his short address with these words: “We discussed the Eastern-Ukrainian and Syrian situations, and we determined that we must unite our forces against terrorism.”

From Putin’s answer to a Russian journalist’s question, however, one has some idea of what Putin must have said to Orbán on the Ukrainian situation. In Putin’s opinion, the Ukrainians provoked the latest military action in the eastern provinces of the country because the Ukrainian government badly needs money, which it hopes to get from the European Union and the United States. Thus, the Ukrainians try to picture themselves as the victims of Russian aggression. Orbán’s response to this fabrication was not exactly courageous. He muttered something about fulfilling the Minsk II Agreement, which will provide peace in Europe. At the same time he felt it necessary to mention that the Minsk Agreement has a clause guaranteeing minority rights, which also affects the Hungarian minority. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the Hungarian minority’s current situation in Ukraine.

The Hungarian assumption underlying Viktor Orbán’s hopes for closer Russian-Hungarian relations was that Donald Trump would conduct a pro-Russian foreign policy, which he has long advocated. But after the chaotic first two weeks of the new administration, there has been an unexpected turn. The Trump administration, counter to all expectations, is taking a hard stand on Russian aggression against Ukraine. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, delivered a tough speech yesterday in which she condemned Russia’s unacceptable behavior. She said that the United States would like to have better relations with Russia, but “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” Moreover, in the speech she also said that “the United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. The United States considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.” She added that “our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

Although Haley’s remarks were not all that different from speeches delivered by Samantha Power, the Obama administration’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, felt that “there is a change in tone” with the arrival of the new administration. He claimed that he wasn’t particularly surprised by Haley’s speech, something I find difficult to believe, even though in the last couple of weeks the Russians have also come to the conclusion that one never knows what to expect from this new White House.

What an irony of fate. On the very same day that Viktor Orbán and his foreign minister are laying out their great plans for an entirely different international climate as far as Russia and Europe is concerned, the U.S. ambassador to the UN reinforces the United States’ resolve to keep the sanctions in place as long as it takes. This should put an end to the daydreams of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó.

February 3, 2017
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Istvan
Guest
I think a Forbes article published today adds a dimension to Eva’s statement that the “Trump administration, counter to all expectations, is taking a hard stand on Russian aggression against Ukraine.” See http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2017/02/03/what-u-n-ambassador-haleys-comment-on-russia-really-means/#6e84700e4405 The Trump administration at this point still wants to neutralize Russia as an adversary to focus on China and now also maybe Iran. The Trump administration would also like to partner with Russia to eliminate the Islamic State from the face of the earth through the most lethal means necessary. There is probably little doubt the CIA is giving the Trump administration detailed information on Russian attacks on Ukrainian forces over the past five days orchestrated by Putin. Secretary of Defense Mattis is no doubt alarmed by what NATO is seeing and fears Putin is playing games with the USA, something that gets the blood up for any hard corp jarhead like General Mattis (a nickname for Marines used in the Army and elsewhere). So Nikki Haley was given the directive to rattle the saber at Putin to get him to draw back. I am amazed that Putin was so foolishly aggressive so as to make probes in Ukraine before Trump took any actions on sanctions. But… Read more »
Istvan
Guest

On using Russia against Iran as part of team Trump global strategy, to the extent it has one, see https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/04/iran-sanctions-us-showdown-middle-east-donald-trump

webber
Guest

Orban is still delighted by Trump, because it seems clear that Trump will not be concentrating on democratic norms.

Orban should, however, be more than a little worried that Trump will insist on a new balance of trade with the EU, and might impose higher tariffs if the (im)balance is not addressed.

Hungary has a positive trade balance with the US. Any higher tariffs directed against the EU as a whole will hit Hungarian exports hard. There is no replacement market for these exports (every country, incl. Hu., is trying to sell as much as possible abroad already). Even if sanctions against Russia were lifted by the EU (this looks unlikely), Russia would not be able to purchase enough Hungarian products to compensate for the restriction of the US market.

webber
Guest

Russia media and officials label the Ukrainian military “terrorists.” That is the key to Putin’s comments about eliminating terrorists. What he really means is eliminating the independence of the government and military of Ukraine.

For Russian officials, a “terrorist” is anyone who resists a Russian take-over.

webber
Guest

Also, Russian media frequently uses the word “fascists” for Ukrainian nationalists. No doubt there are fascists in every country. Russia, for instance, has quite a lot of them. Some of Russia’s fascist organizations have people in E. Ukraine eager to kill Ukrainians.

Ferenc
Guest

…… and have shot down an international passenger airplane.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysia_Airlines_Flight_17
Investigations are still going on, since 2016.Sep no news, but really wondering how this case will develop, could have serious impact on Russia……

webber
Guest

I don’t think there will be any impact on Russia from further investigation. An independent Dutch-led investigation already concluded that Russians shot it down, using a Russian rocket system (BUK). What happened? Russia denied it, and nothing happened.

Ferenc
Guest

Potentially a lot can happen, really wondering what will….
About your opinion: …… and remember Lockerbie…..

Regarding the investigations in this case, it was first about what happened, and now into the next phase to get the people responsible.
Hopefully this case take less time to close

webber
Guest

Lockerbie. Sure – Lybia paid.
But Russia has nuclear weapons, and the ability to defeat any invader. Lybia did not.

pappp
Guest

Russia will never give in. Period. You would have to wait for a complete breakdown like the end of the the SU and a loss of GDP of about 45%.

You could have an UN binding resolution (of course not, because Russia has the veto) and Russia would still resist.

Russia starts from the assumption that it is one of the very few global powers who are completely sovereign. Other than Russia this group currently includes only the US and increasingly China, but that’s it.

Whatever Russia wants to do (shooting down planes, invading countries) it will do it and nobody can do a thing.

Of course the trick is to prevent Russia from even wanting to do certain things.

Guest

Now if Russia were to get into a similar situation as the Soviet Union in 1989?

Their economy is really weak imho.

webber
Guest

I agree with Papp – Russia will never admit it was guilty, and will never pay (unless some miracle happens and the leader after Putin is some sort of saint).

Ferenc
Guest

@Webber
I think also that Putin&co will never admit to be guilty. But this case is so obvious, that (under normal international circumstances) in the end some ‘Russians’ have to be ‘offered’.
The question then will be if, after having received so much fake news in this case, the Russian people accept that from their leaders.
For me this case has a lot of potential for influencing matters in Russia. The chance something serious will happen from this, I rate 50-50.

webber
Guest

History suggests that there is no end to the amount of garbage “the Russian people” can accept from their leaders. Individuals among them may not like it, but Russian state has centuries of practice shoving things down the collective’s throat.

webber
Guest

Why do you rate it “50-50”???
What do you base that optimistic rating on????
Every day, Russians hear on their media that fascists are attacking poor Russians in E. Ukraine.
If the airliner is brought up on Russian media at all, three things are stressed:
1. The West (incl. the Dutch) is lying, and for some unfathomable reason has aligned itself with fascists.
2. The fascist government of Ukraine was actually set up by the CIA, and does not reflect the will of the poor suffering honest people of Ukraine, who are now under the heel of fascists (that is, they need to be liberated).
3. The fascists shot down that plane and, along with their mislead Western allies, are trying to besmirch the name of Great Russia and thereby prevent the liberation of the poor people of Ukraine.

So why do you give ANY chance at all that the Russian state will admit its guilt?

Guest

Relevant article by Peter Kreko (of Political Capital) in the euobserver:

https://euobserver.com/opinion/136706

Ferenc
Guest

There’s also an article about EU and anti-corruption:
https://euobserver.com/institutional/136775

Guest
I think that when Obama decided that it was not worthwhile to risk a major military clash with Russia over the Krim, it has irreversibly reverted to being sovereign Russian territory, and no amount of jawboning by Westerners and Ukrainians will ever going to change that. And unless Kiev switches back over to the Russian side – without any ifs, buts or maybes – the same will most certainly be eventually the fate of the Donbas and the Azov shoreline all the way to the Krim, notwithstanding any serious annoyance to the old jarhead in the Pentagon (or his successor). My take on the situation in the Ukraine is that ultimately it will more than likely break up into three parts, just like Iraq. Pre-war East Poland, Southern Galicia and Northern Bukovina will become an independent republic, with Lvov as its capital. The Donbas and the Azov shoreline to Krim – but possibly the Black Sea shoreline too, all the way to Odessa and Transnistria, will be incorporated into Russia. And the remaining Kievan Ukraine will become Finlandised as a strategic buffer state to complement Belorus on Russia’s Western frontiers. The Russians are hardy nationalists who have borne in the… Read more »
Istvan
Guest

I think that the analysis ambalint presents is close to that of Rex Tillerson’s. Trump has probably been given an even more simplified version of it by Steve Bannon. There are some in the US military that share that perspective, but some who want to freeze the demarcation lines and defacto concede the Crimea to Putin. As is obvious I do not share that perspective.

Bastiat2
Guest

If I may write a dissenting opinion about Ukraine, let me remind that the present borders of Ukraine are purely artificial and were determined by Khrushchev at a time when the USSR wanted to include a large minority of Russians in every satellite republic. Hence Crimea attached to Ukraine (which sent rumors of disapproval at the time, inasmuch as you could disapprove in those days. Same for the Dombass region, which is and always has been a Russo-phone area.
Part (I stress the “part”) of the problem stems from those reasons of long ago. I happen to know someone in Crimea who is very happy to be back in “mother Russia” (true one person does not make a statistic).
Furthermore, the policy of the US in Ukraine is, to my view, dubious to say the least. We’ll see what Rex Tillerson has to say in the coming weeks and months. I would not put to much emphasis myself on the UN ambassador speech.

Observer
Guest

Staying with H, I think the Orban foreign “policy” has only one consistent line – the adversity to any party, be it individuals, NGOs, states or even the EU, which is a proponent of democracy Ö any of its attributes. Hence the Orban totally misguided affinity toward anti-democrats.
Misguided, because Orban’s been used for publicity (an EU member state PM, after all) or swindled (Azerbaijan’s ax mute deter case) by his dictator “friends”. See nice Hungarian Free Press post/pics about Orban’s antes with Iran.
Actually, adding the costly “eastward opening”, all of Orban’s attempts at foreign policy were botched amateurish missteps.
His current joy about the new international political climate where the foreign policy moves will be determined by the states’ national interests uninhibited by EU or other common rules is even logically wrong – in the “open” fight the big and powerful are poised to subjugate the small and lpoor, as H is.

wrfree
Guest

Re: pix… ‘ a bit over the top

May I suggest a rockin’ ‘Vic and Petey’s’ ode to Rossiya?

https://youtu.be/iomKWx4Ffx0

Observer
Guest

Picture: Over the top

Lavrov looks like – Ok, ok, that’s enough, you eager boy.

Yeah, this is the forplay and then the Russians will get on top. I suppose Orban knows it, hence his dejected mood after the meeting.

In fact the Russians may already know something to blackmail him with, even might have set him up with some bribes in order to own him now. We may never know if he dances to the Rissian rune, a peacock dance won’t do for Putin.

Observer
Guest

Guys,

I hoped to learn more about the contents of the Putin-Orban meeting discussions, but haven’t.
Put together, Orban’s dejected mood and Putin’s dangling the option of the Russian side absorbing the cost of the power station one have ask:
Q. Why was Orban in foul mood at the PR pinnacle of the meeting he so much trumpeted?
Q. Why would cash strapped Russia volunteer to make further presents to small Hungary?

Is it that pay day came for Orban and Putin had asked him to do something for Russia like casting a veto in the EU?

Anyone with info?

Guest

Not too much OT:
The German Spiegel:
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