If the United States were a serious power, it would pay heed to the warnings issuing from Hungary about the economic calamity facing Europe. Instead, Team Biden has dispatched a same-sex-married liberal activist as its envoy to Budapest in an apparent attempt to tweak the Hungarians’ conservative sensibilities. It’s the sort of stunt that would elicit little more than eye rolls—but for the fact that we live in deadly serious times.
At the ruling Fidesz party’s annual “picnic” last weekend in Kötcse, a village two hours’ drive southwest from the capital, the message was dire: The United States is driving its trans-Atlantic allies to ruin by globalizing a local, intra-Slavic conflict in Ukraine. And European leaders are going along, obstinately sticking with sanctions that have failed to force a rethink in Moscow, let alone “collapse” the Russian economy or trigger a palace coup against Vladimir Putin.
“Sanctions work when deployed by stronger actors against the weak,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told me as we sat down for a brief interview on the sidelines of the Kötcse conference. “Europe isn’t the stronger actor when it comes to energy. And so the sanctions aren’t working.” It seems like an obvious enough point, but these days, it takes the gruff rationality of the “black sheep” of the European family to voice the obvious.
Western leaders make-believe as if Moscow is some small-time Mideast “rogue regime,” which they can bring to heel by cutting it off from global trade and financial flows. There are only two problems. One is that this isn’t 1999 anymore: What Fareed Zakaria condescendingly called “the rise of the rest” means the rest of the world doesn’t salute when Washington and Brussels hand down sanctions diktats—“the rest” can afford to disobey.
The bigger problem is that Russia isn’t some small-time Mideast country, but a Eurasian civilization with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and most valuable energy reserves. Even in the case of those classic sanctioned “rogues,” Western embargoes have as often spurred autarkic internal development as caused pain to ordinary people. But in the case of Russian energy, the sanctions were always structurally bound to backfire against Europe.
“If someone believes you can beat Russia, and change things in Moscow, it is a pure mistake,” Orbán told his party’s grandees in Kötcse, speaking forthrightly about the war’s military endgame.
His attitude isn’t born of any deep love for Moscow—impossible, given half a century of Soviet occupation and the premier’s belief that Russian civilization is fundamentally different from Europe’s. Rather, it comes from the realism and cold rationality that Hungary’s historical and geographic circumstances have imposed on her.
Realism: The Russians have utterly confounded the energy sanctions’ intended effects, whether by selling their reserves to the Chinese, who then resell to the Europeans at a markup, or by simply selling less of the stuff at higher prices created by sanctions. In the event, the war and the sanctions have buoyed the ruble to historic highs.
Realism: Seeking to beggar their giant neighbor to the east, the Europeans have beggared … themselves. Fuel lines are now a common sight in Poland and elsewhere. Manufacturers have shuttered production in Germany and across much of Northern Europe. Energy bills are already unsustainable for British small businesses, and winter isn’t even here yet.
Realism: Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary very much included, risk serious developmental backsliding, just when the region is poised to become a net contributor to the EU budget. As Orbán said to me, “the war and the sanctions prosecuted by the West will cause the region to lose all the gains it’s made relative to Western Europe.”
All this raises a vexing question for American policymakers—at least those willing to listen, rather than mindlessly dismiss Orbán as “illiberal.” Is the United States really prepared to see Europe turn itself into an energy and economic basket case for no tangible gains against Moscow? Would it be desirable for millions of German workers laboring in high-end manufacturing to join jobless rolls? Is mass Polish poverty worth appeasing Warsaw’s insane and hopeless determination to fight an apocalyptic war against Russia on Ukrainian soil?
The most cynical Hungarian answer is that that is exactly what Washington wants to bring about: to downgrade German manufactures and sever the energy-manufacturing synergy between Russia and Germany, to end Europe’s aspirations to “strategic autonomy” and induce a total dependence on America, and ultimately to reduce the number of America’s industrial rivals from two (China and Europe) down to one (just China). I, for one, have trouble seeing this degree of evil genius at work in Gen. Mark Milley’s Pentagon and Antony Blinken’s Foggy Bottom.
But whatever the motives of the sanctions architects, one small but feisty country in Central Europe is prepared to resist the drive to European de-industrialization. It can afford to fight—come “pro-Putin” epithets and ostracism—because the alternatives are far more costly, and because Orbán is serenely indifferent to what’s said about him in the councils of Europe or the pages of American newspapers.
“In Hungary,” he told me as he wiped his fingers and pushed away a plate of deep-fried veal, “I would be dead politically if I showed any ambition for international popularity. Luckily, I don’t work for The New York Times. The people out there vote for me, not the Times editorial board.”