One of Europe’s most renowned experts on Russia, Mark Galeotti, has visited Budapest at the invitation of Political Capital. Among others, we discussed Russia’s war on Ukraine, as well as the truthfulness of various statements issued by Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin.
I thought about going over the two recently held end-of-year speeches’ most important statements concerning the war, since both Viktor Orbán and Vladimir Putin have expressed their thoughts on the matter. First things first: who started this war?
Russia, by all means. The idea of Russia launching an invasion to stop the outbreak of a war is a rather peculiar Orwellian twist. This is not to say that there haven’t been poltical mistakes on part of the West, but Putin must still take full responsibility for this conflict.
Was Putin’s perception of a Western threat justified?
I consider Putin a rational politician, but even rational politicians can believe rather strange things, as was the case with Putin. He truly believes in a Western threat to Russia, since from the early 2010’s he has had the feeling that there is a Western drive to marginalize both him and Russia. I believe he honestly believes in this. Nonetheless, he is wrong.
It was not only Putin who felt threatened, but the West, too – by him. To what extent was this feeling of being threatened justified?
That’s the other major problem of this conflict. Many state that if Putin is not stopped now, he will keep expanding towards the West as far as he is allowed. As far as I can tell, this has never really been the plan, Putin has never posed a serious military threat to the West. However, at this point, Russia no longer possesses the opportunity to do so, either. The Russian army is in shambles, and they would need at least ten years to patch it up before planning another invasion.
Why are there sanctions against Russia? In Hungary there is a great deal of discussion about whether they are truly necessary, and it is indeed fair to have questions about their true purpose. This was not clearly stated at the time they were imposed.
The truth is, there are two wars going on simultaneously. On one hand, there is a „real” war fought between the militaries of Russia and Ukraine, while on the other, there is another conflict of a political, economic, social and cultural nature, fought between the West and Russia.
When imposing the sanctions, there was a lot of talk of them finally bringing Putin to his knees, but there was never a realistic chance of that happening. That’s not how sanctions work. In reality, they slowly and surely grind up Russia’s economy, and deny its access to the high-tech weaponry required by such a war. Moreover, they constantly reduce accessible monetary funds Putin could use to replenish the coffers of war. Economic sanctions are a very slow, but very effective weapon. The problem is, too many have said too big things about them.
Besides, they are rather unwieldy tools, often affecting Russians otherwise opposing the war effort. In any case: they are chopping up Putin’s economy step by step.
The official standpoint of the Hungarian government is that the sanctions are actually doing more harm to us than to Putin. Is this true?
No. The sanctions were imposed right in the middle of an energy crisis, but if we take an objective look at the data, they are much more painful for Russia. Surely, we should not lie to ourselves: this is an economic war, and wars always have victims on both sides. The sanctions come at a cost, but we are in a much better position to handle this cost than Russia.
Is it a problem that these sanctions are not officially recognised as an economic war? Nobody ever openly states this.
It indeed is a problem; we should be much more honest with each other with regards to what exactly is happening. We should also have honest conversations about the possible means to end this war, since there is a lack of consensus in this regard, too. I can understand why politicians stick to the simple answers, but these simple answers often distort reality.
Is this the war of two Slavic peoples, without clear good and bad sides?
I have noticed that Viktor Orbán simultaneously claims that this is the war of two Slavic peoples, and that it is Washington and Moscow who should negotiate peace, which are somewhat contradictory statements. But let’s make up our mind, shall we? Also, there naturally is a clear moral dimension to it, too. This is a one-sided invasion, perpetrated by Russia. Ukraine has indeed made mistakes, but this is a Russian war, and we can’t just idly watch the aggression. Of course, we have done this many times in the past, for example we just sat and watched the same situation unfold in Yemen.
Hungary’s response is twofold: on one hand, Viktor Orbán vehemently opposes the sanctions against Russia; on the other, he actually votes for them. We criticise a joint response, but still partake in every aspect thereof. Is this a good solution?
Hungary has very tangible issues concerning the situation, such as the question of energy supply. But I think many fail to understand to what extent Hungary is isolating itself within NATO and the EU with these politics. Yes, in the end, he votes how he has to, but he is hindering the process with the debate itself. He is delaying the NATO membership of Finland and Sweden, and issues statements that make Russia happy. Viktor Orbán is quoted frequently in the Russian press as a sign that the West is divided in its approach against Russia.
Viktor Orbán insists that we must stay out of this war. Have we managed to stay out?
For the most part, yes. Hungary naturally provides humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but denies military assistance. The provision of military aid is clearly the joint political approach of NATO and the EU, while Hungary has simply decided not to partake.
Problem is, membership in these organisations is not like some kind of buffet, where we can pick what we want of it and what we don’t. One must accept the mutual responsibility of acting in accordance with the common approach, which is clearly not a strong suit of Viktor Orbán.
I can understand the geopolitical perspective of the Hungarian government, but we must admit that there is a moral dimension to the question, too. If we see someone get robbed across the road, we can’t just go on about our business thinking I don’t even know the guy, it’s not my problem.
You have said Viktor Orbán can be very useful to Russia. Are they treating Serbia – a country with a similar political standpoint – the same way, or is Hungary more important due to being part of the EU and NATO?
Hungary being part of these organisations is naturally an important detail. It is frequently brought up that Orbán is pro-Russia, but in my view, Orbán is merely pro-Orbán. What is useful to Russia from Hungary’s political approach is that Orbán is throwing some sand in the gears, but they do not consider him to be in their pocket. Nor do they expect him to support Russia instead of the EU. They accept that Hungary is part of the EU, but they are always happy to see division within the organisation.
Let’s talk about the decision to draw out Finland’s and Sweden’s road towards NATO membership by more than half a year. Whom does this pertain to, Russia or Turkey?
I honestly admit, I do not understand this whole thing. In other matters I can see the pragmatic reasoning behind each decision, but this is not the case with the ones regarding NATO, since this is not the European Union. I do not understand why Hungary would want to do Turkey’s dirty work, while Turkey states clearly what their issue with the situation is. I am no expert on Hungary, but this situation is rather incomprehensible.
Is Orbán throwing sand in the gears beneficial to Hungary?
Hungary’s situation makes it dependant on Russian gas and nuclear energy. In exchange, Hungary is currently risking losing its EU funds. In my view, this is not in the best interest of the country; meanwhile, these decisions are also weakening the organisations Hungary is part of. Every government has the right to autonomous decision-making, but if Viktor Orbán asked me, I would simply tell him that this does not further Hungary’s interests. On the other hand, it might very much further the interests of the Hungarian government itself, since a debate against a foreign actor could present a good opportunity to mobilise their voter base.
Earlier, Hungary and Poland were considered to be two rather problematic members of the EU, but they have utilised this situation entirely differently. Poland has taken a key role in the political struggle against Russia, which seems to have helped member states forget the earlier issues. Could Hungary be capable of the same? In case we voted the way we were supposed to in every case without objections, would the EU excuse the country a multitude of things happening over here?
Being opposed to conflict is encoded within the EU’s DNA. A potential shift in Hungary’s attitude would be seen in a very positive light in Brussels. Although this would not be the same case as with Poland, which not only no longer wants to be problematic, but also aims to become the new military centre of Europe. Of course, this is a grandiose and highly questionable plan.
In my opinion, there is no deeply rooted anti-Hungarian sentiment within the European Union. There are matters on which Hungary’s standpoint greatly differs from that of the rest of the Union, and changing some of these controversial approaches would help a great deal in Hungary’s quick return to the fold.
Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán insists he is merely doing what his nation wants him to do. In reality I think he simply enjoys challenge and conflict.
While reading Western media, it seems Viktor Orbán is facing critiques even more negative than what would be justified. Does the European Union need someone to point to as the black sheep of the family?
Why yes of course, everyone loves having a scapegoat. Orbán’s attitude is, of course, markedly combative. Hungary is a small, but central country, which is considered to belong to the heart of Europe.
Does this belligerent attitude help Hungary punch above its weight regarding influence?
One must stay within the realm of reality. As a small country, one has two main possibilities: one is to be perfectly cooperative, to be the good boys, in the belief that this will take us forward. The other is to be the bad boys. The latter one is also a viable strategy, although one could argue that Orbán is perhaps taking it too far towards the extremes. In addition, the war in Ukraine has transformed this issue into a comprehensive debate about European security, which is now being taken much more seriously. The question is no longer only what Brussels thinks, but also what Washington thinks about Hungary’s manoeuvres. But if we’re honest, we can see that no one really talks about other Central European leaders’ end-of-year speeches.
Why is the Hungarian one being discussed?
I don’t want to exaggerate – this is certainly not the first thing my cab driver will mention when I return to Britain. But Orbán certainly has particularly high influence within Europe.
So for example, the cab driver will know his name.
Yes, while it’s less likely that they will have heard of the Czech Republic’s head of government.
The other important message of the Hungarian government is that a ceasefire and a peace agreement are needed. Is there a chance for these?
In the long run, there is chance for peace, but there is absolutely no chance for a ceasefire right now. To begin with, an armistice is possible as long as both sides are willing to oblige. Compared to this, both sides are preparing for their great spring campaigns. Furthermore, a truce at this moment would leave most of Ukraine under Russian control. To be fair, an armistice would automatically help Moscow, so it is no wonder most Western countries are not very eager to seek one.
Everyone wants peace, but peace must be fair. At this moment, peace would mean a sacrifice of justice.
What conditions are there for any kind of agreement?
Right now there are absolutely no opportunities for an agreement, since both sides consider time to be on their side. Putin thinks that Western support for Ukraine will dwindle with time, while Ukraine thinks to possess military momentum, and that they could even take the Crimean Bridge, which would automatically put them in a better position. I think Ukraine will win this war, but the when and how is still in question. It is possible that even Crimea will remain Russian, but the territories conquered in this war will return to Ukraine.
Even the Donbas?
Even the Donbas. Of course it’s still a question as to what extent Ukraine wants these territories back, but they certainly do possess a symbolic meaning.
Should the Crimean Peninsula remain Russian?
This time the Crimean population should be asked about their preferences in a manner that would allow them to answer honestly. A true referendum is needed, where even those who were forced to flee must have a say. And if they decide to belong to Russia, it must be allowed.
If both sides feel time is on their side, who is more right?
Ukraine. Putin assumes Western support to collapse in the future, but there are currently no signs of that happening. But he has nothing else to count on; this is all that’s left. The question is whether the Americans support Ukraine or not. I just spent six months in Washington, and besides a few Republicans claiming that Ukraine has no opportunity for unlimited assistance, I felt a very strong support on both sides.
This may be the case with the conventional elite of the Republican Party, but what about Trump’s far right? Reading Lindsey Graham’s opinions paints a whole different picture compared to the views of Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example.
Let’s take a look back at what happened under Trump’s term. He said something about wanting to do certain things differently, but in practice, the policy changed very rarely compared to what it had been before. At the time of Trump’s depart from the White House, American foreign policy regarding Russia was actually tougher compared to the approach at the time of his rise to power. Fundamentally, Trump believes in Trump, and it is highly doubtful that he would sacrifice political capital only to pull the rug out from under Ukraine.
Not to mention that this is not necessarily a bad war for the United States. They are spending but a fraction of the American defence budget, and most of that goes to purchase American-made weapons. They don’t have to bother with refugees, and they can sell their expensive LNG gas in Europe.
It would be an overstatement to claim the war is in the interests of America, but it certainly doesn’t do the USA any harm, either.
With regards to Orbán, it is often said that he is not right, but that he will be right. Do you see any trends which could verify him?
Of course there are populist trends, but it is a different question to ask whether there are “Orbánist” trends, too. Just take a look at Italy: before Giorgia Meloni took office, there was widespread fright of her being the first fascist prime minister since Mussolini. That is evidently not what she ended up being. As soon as she got into power she realised that the European Union is the only significant player on the continent, and she strives to cooperate with Brussels ever since. The number one thing with populists is that they turn towards their own nation. Viktor Orbán will not work extra for the benefit of another country. If we ask whether Orbán will be right, the answer is pending even from the perspective of Ukraine and Russia. If we trust that everything will return to normal with the end of the war, we will be disappointed. As long as Putin is in the Kremlin, the old state of affairs will never return.
In your podcast, you talk a lot about the potential outcomes after Putin. To begin with, do you see any chance of there being an “after Putin” in the next few years?
I do see a chance, but – apart from the scenario where the president falls victim to some kind of accident – it seems instead that the Russian state is gradually losing its ability to react to the challenges. If this goes on for an extended period of time, sooner or later there might be a chance for Putin to decide – or be forced – to stand aside. But when, how, and who comes next – these are things we know nothing about.
Does Putin’s person decrease the chances of an eventual peace agreement?
If anything is more important to Putin than Ukraine, then it is his own survival. If the question was, say, whether he could lose Crimea, he might very well think that he could not survive that. Putin practically operates on a constant cost-benefit analysis. In case holding on to Crimea got more difficult, he could think that the only thing more unpleasant than giving it up would be if it was taken from him. And this could very well change his way of thinking.
Does this war have public support in Russia?
Not really. It is of course difficult to gather reliable information on the topic, as many fear to speak up, but according to most estimates only a quarter of the Russian population supports the war. That does not necessarily mean that they approve of what went down in Bucha, but they may think that the Russian war effort is rightful. A quarter of the population opposes the war, and about half of society bows their head and tries to wait out the whole thing. If looked at from this perspective, then about three-quarters of the population doesn’t support this war.
Who could come after Putin?
Taking a look at the next generation of politicians, we can mostly see technocratic kleptocrats. They are not democratic, but there is no guarantee that they would want to oppose the West, since that is where for example their villas and yachts are, and they are using Western banks. But true resistance can only come from economic protests, the kind of which we can already see on a smaller scale. It is these that could transform into some kind of resistance. Economic protests, which could turn political.
What about people that are politically to the right from Putin?
Concerning the current leadership, most of those with extreme views are of Putin’s generation. By the way I think anyone would be an improvement from Putin. There are of course extremists, but none of them have the kind of power to rule Russia alone, so they would be forced to make coalitions that would inevitably curb their extremities.
There are theories proposing that Putin’s depart from power would lead to the dissolution of the Russian Federation, after which smaller, independent states could come into being. Independent Tuva, Irkutsk, Yakutia.
I think this is counted on by the kind of Western analysts who would simply like to see the Russian Federation dissolve. And they fundamentally misunderstand the mechanisms of the Russian Federation, too. Anytime I look at them, these maps always follow the boundaries of current federal subjects, but on an ethnic basis, while these states almost exclusively have an ethnic Russian majority at this point. The question would then be whether Russians living there would support the case of an independent Buryatia. Meanwhile there are of course Russians who would be happy about no longer having to maintain the operation of Chechnya, but that is another story.
What will happen to Alexei Navalny?
At the moment Putin has no reason to kill him. He poses no threat. Killing him could potentially have a destabilising effect. Navalny is as safe as one can get within a high-security Russian prison. I would be happy to see Alexei Navalny become the next president of Russia, but that is not something I have much faith in.
Was it a good decision on his part to go home and face the prison sentence?
I surely wouldn’t have had the courage to do that. We can see those Russian expats who fled to the West having perhaps a comfortable life, but absolutely no effect on Russia. From this perspective, Navalny’s decision was not only of courage, but of incredible patriotism as well. Whether it was a good decision, well, only time will tell. It also depends on whether he regains his freedom, and his eventual status as a free person. But he was right in that had he stayed abroad, his influence would definitely have decreased.
Let’s steer back to the statements of the end-of-year speeches. Is Ukraine the puppet government of the United States?
No, not by any means. On the contrary. Zelensky was very smart in manipulating the West and getting what he wanted. Biden’s visit was announced as a token of his support for Ukraine. But I can’t help thinking that perhaps he too would have very much wanted a photo of him standing next to Zelensky. That is the degree to which he has become an iconic politician. The Americans also have a problem with the Ukrainians being perhaps too aggressive, especially regarding Crimea, so they are still quite heavily moderating the kind of weaponry provided. They assess carefully whether certain equipment could be used for attacks that could potentially provoke the Russians.
Putin’s speech featured an interesting contradiction. He said the further West the Ukrainians go and the stronger weapons they get, the more they will have to be pushed back so that they would be out of shelling range of Russian territories. Meanwhile, the very positions they are occupying right now count as Russian territory according to the Russian constitution. It’s as if not even Putin would treat the recently annexed regions as true Russian territories.
I think the annexation was indeed a mistake. Putin wanted to demonstrate action, but I find it strange to hear so little about Kherson these days. Putin annexed it, but the Russians are controlling a mere fraction of the area. In the case of an eventual peace agreement, the Russian constitution would simply have to be modified, or perhaps the Russians would just have to ignore its contents.
It seems these days we don’t hear that much about denazification , either.
There are indeed neo-Nazis and neo-fascists in Ukraine, but this doesn’t only apply to Ukraine. Azov’s existence in itself is not a proof of Ukraine being a Nazi state. Ukraine having a Jewish president is the most obvious contradiction to this notion. This was a comfortable political statement to make in its own time, one which was simply cast aside later. To begin with, the number one condition for denazification would be total control of the country.
Was Germany right in hesitating to follow the Western majority and send weapons to Ukraine?
Ironically, the thing that bothers me the most regarding the German approach is that after having started the process of sovereign thinking, they still ended up allowing themselves to be blackmailed into the standard Western standpoint. Germany’s hesitation was totally justified; they should have completed their internal debate to the fullest extent. Regardless, I think it is useful to give Ukraine tanks at this stage of the war. But it also would have been useful to actually carry out this dialogue.
Translation: Figyes Harmat